The 1950s and 1960s
Autobiography in the village. The city
Texts by Mario De Micheli, Francesco De Bartolomeis, Raffaele De Grada, Armando Plebe, Antonello Trombadori, Pierangelo Soldini, Luigi Cavallo
Mario De Micheli
The language that Leddi is fashioning in his endeavours as an artist is precise, and therefore clearcut and appropriate. There is no smoke in the eyes, no formal sophistry, but simply an alert, carefully monitored and sensitive investigation of his own language. There is in this young artist an exemplary modesty, verging on reticence or timidity. But this modesty also conceals a stubborn will, a will whose tenacity serves to distinguish the artist from the popularisers of taste and fashion.
Leddi is fundamentally an autobiographical painter. He came into the city from the countryside and and this theme of an encounter between two such different worlds greatly interests him, deeply stirred as he has been by this encounter and by the history of other men who, like him, have taken or are taking this path.
Having come from Tortona to Milan, he relives the meaning of an exodus that is so characteristic of our own times. There is a trace of this exodus in his drawings and in his canvases, with everything poetic, nostalgic, troubled and cruel that may also arise in such circumstances.
When we look at Leddi’s paintings and drawings we become aware of the various motifs orienting his search for new forms of expression. Sometimes the marks he makes are brusque, dry, almost resentful; at other times, however, they are soft. In one picture the brushwork takes on an expressionist emphasis; in another it appears cautious, measured. Leddi is filtering his own feelings, he is putting them to the test. And this fervour, this profound self-questioning, is the guarantee of his commitment, of his passion for a painting of which man is the measure and the substance.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria Alberti, Brescia, 1959)
Francesco De Bartolomeis
Leddi does not fall into the commonplace notion of alienation nor does he propose looking on from the sidelines. He avoids surrendering to the machine and to the “mass media” by means of his representation of a new sense of the organic, almost a new physiology. This representation includes both the machine and the mass media as human relationships and ways of life in relation to which we have no choice. In particular, the machine is here not limited to being an objective figurative element or a feature of the external environment, because it is more properly regarded as a total situation which, through a new, lived perception of space, time and forms, shapes our experience.
We can speak of a sort of pictorial physiologism, provided that we understand that this penetration into the inside serves as an expressive definition of space, as a way of ascertaining a dynamism, for which indeed the internal-external tension is indispensable. It is therefore not a question of a realism (of a crude kind, moreover) that has extended its horizon so as to include within it whatever part of the “closed object” is not seen. Even the term “radiography” is not appropriate here, because it may imply a simple material operation.
As it was for the futurists, so too here “the viewer will be placed at the centre of the picture”. Leddi shares the need to destroy the contemplative attitude, the standing outside, the timeless image. He represents, and not in a narrative guise, a fact; it is indispensable for him to live inside it. Since they are facts-events, that is to say, something happens, the temporal dimension enters into the representation so as to characterise the dynamisation of space. And then we are concerned with “true”, lived space. [ …]
Leddi’s research therefore pushes beyond realism, aware as he is of its ambiguities. He seeks to situate organic events in space, to attain to the essential structures of figures, relationships and movement. He shows quite openly how much effort it costs him to guard against two dangers: that of naturalistic and narrative reference absorbed by contingency and that of an abstraction which, in order to safeguard the essential, achieves disappointing or simplistic results.
It seems to me that a rich scribble, and sometimes even an actual “mess”, a bold and heightened coloration, and a figuration that imposes itself through an unsettling psychological presence, are the expressive facts through which Leddi is attaining a style of his own.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria L’Indiano, Milan, 1963)
Raffaele De Grada
Leddi has brought with him from the provinces – he is from the same territory as Pellizza, near to Tortona – the purity of an ideal and of customs that can only with difficulty become acclimatised to the Milanese jungle.
This impression, which I had when I knew him, was not simply psychological. I found again in his soul what I had glimpsed in his pictures and the drawings. I had felt that these far from facile and “popular” pictures, by an enthusiastic heir to Pellizza, had nothing to do with academic abstract art, and that if linked to anything it was to the roots of the revolt against Novecentismo, a revolt which was wholly unrelated to “historical” abstraction.
[…] Looking at one of Leddi’s current pictures we are struck first of all by their nobility, their separation from the commonplace forms of painting, whether populist or informal or banally surreal. This nobility of forms, deploying a highly controlled coloristic accuracy, altogether different from the more facile appeal of naturalism but so pictorial that it never lapses into the aimlessly irrational, immediately gives the impression of going beyond more recent solutions. In order to find a similar dignity in composition, one would have to go back to the symbols of orphic cubism and of the futurism of Boccioni, to a scholarly integrity that abhors improvisation.
One feels that Leddi is terrified of lapsing into the descriptive. His polemic against the nineteenth century extends to all the even minimally descriptive forms that may feature in the contemporary world. Leddi’s pictures are so deliberately outside of this tradition that they seem to be cartoons for a symbolic mural. As easel paintings they disrupt the habitual schemas […]. This difference is underlined by the fact that Leddi does not believe in the picture that is dashed off, more or less “painted” (from Pirandello to Dubuffet), but has faith in “great” work – in accordance with the ancient tradition of the liberal arts, with all the intermediate transitions between the artisanate and painting. […]
In this sense Leddi typefies the contemporary crisis in painting, a crisis that first of all assails the intellectuals, who are weary of representing the traditional values of bourgeois life and yet do not feel themselves to be displaying with the necessary lyrical intensity the new values of a new class. Leddi himself has completely turned his back on landscape, even though he prides himself upon being an heir to Pellizza, who was a great lyrical landscape painter. We can compare Leddi’s circumstance in this regard to that of a director like Antonioni: by searching for the most hidden meanings of the tiniest gestures, and of every possible situation, one risks annulling the actual content and throwing open the abyss of the void […]
There thereby arises a sort of symbolic mythology of everyday reality, which resembles the world of Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones, of Redon and of Rops, all artists of crisis, poised between the serenity of the nineteenth century and a new century of which only the questioning aspect was perceptible.
[…] I know that this is not in fact how things are, that values exist and should be affirmed. But how is one to stop everyone setting out from zero? Without ever appealing to rhetorics that would appear negative and taken for granted. Leddi is one of the most interesting artists in this select company. The road taken by him may point the way for others.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria della Sala di cultura, Comune di Modena, 1964)
Leddi’s painting is original, and its originality can be understood not so much by reattaching it to one of the many tendencies of present-day painting, but rather by recognising the particular and fertile perspective it offers, which opens up a path rich in new sources of fascination.
At its root are complex cultural and life experiences. Yet three of its essential components will perhaps serve better than the others to identify it. There is, first of all, the experience of a type of psychoanalysis not to be confused with the usual confessional and introverted obsessions, but rather concerned to comprehend in their healthy, volatile fecundity the primordial facts in the life of man. Second, there is a passionate attention paid to the physical and naturalistic reality of things, which confers a new concreteness on abstract psychoanalytic symbolism (whereby if a knot of tendons is meant to symbolise vital tension, that knot immediately becomes, in Leddi, a real, almost palpable tangle of muscle fibres and arteries). Third, and finally, there is the transposition of this psychoanalysis rendered concrete and vital into our contemporary world of machines. The symbols of organic life are thus seen always to be permeated by symbols and objects of present-day mechanisation, in particular of the motorised world, which today overwhelms the life of modern man.
The tempera paintings dedicated to the theme of birth are of particular importance. In order to decant the highly traditional theme of the mother and child, and the rhetoric grafted on to it, Leddi employs the threefold approach described above. He thereby produces images at once intellectual and vitalistic which recall, by virtue of the cold transparency of a rational gaze, the chaotic and embryonic germination of life.
[…] Other paintings by Leddi also feature, in various combinations, these same elements: thus in the pastel Famiglia in auto we discern, through a twisted interplay of lines, a woman in a car and a woman with an infant in her arms. And the set of tempera grassa works on canvas includes the Teste in sorpasso, which once again address automobile themes. In these latter works in tempera we note the use of colour obtained through ancient techniques, which yield a spare, clean, high-toned colour.
Finally I will recall in this regard how the successful results obtained by Leddi are in large part due to his in-depth study of Lombard painting, in particular the school of Leonardo. His unbridled modernity thus rests upon a solid foundation of painterly culture.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria d’arte I Balestrari, Rome 1964)
Piero Leddi […] was formed as a painter in the context of post-war Milan. His actual age, although it did not preclude his remaining intellectually and morally captivated by the realism that came to the fore in our country within the framework of the anti-fascist revolution, nonetheless meant that he could not participate in the realist movement save in a critical guise. There is a sense also in which he thus had the advantage of being already beyond what were first of all the illusions and then the errors of the realist movement. The fact however remains that Leddi, far from brusquely turning the page – as did those for whom realism had been a standardised formula rather than something integral to their own conception of the world – preferred to embark upon a lengthy, solitary enquiry in order to try and deepen, in his own way, certain expressive questions regarding the relationship with reality, and to keep faith, in his own way, with the principle that in our own epoch there cannot be an artistic product effecting a genuine renewal that is not the result of the use of reason, as well as of feeling and poetic inclination.
It is nonetheless of interest to note how for Leddi the fundamental question was for long years not so much that of the “contents” as that of the “expressive forms”. However, he addressed this question in so obsessive a manner that it itself became the “content” of his research. The interrogation of all possible forms, always with the mature concern to develop a capacity to recount a fact in painting without the mortifying burden of descriptivism and of a gratuitous symbolism, has for Leddi not been a matter pure and simple of getting up to date and of an avant-gardist “revival”.
So it is that Leddi, at a certain point in his development, became enmeshed in a tangle of plastic values, yet one nonetheless entirely unrelated to the tangle and the magma of the informal. His tangle was of a narrative-realistic order. It was a question of knowing how to disentangle it in order the better to discover its overall figurative logic, in order to render it suited to the openly communicative ends that he as a painter had in mind.
“So far as the complex procedures involved in making choices are concerned”, Piero Leddi wrote to me a short while ago, “I can assure you that, by contrast with my previous work, I have decided to represent more “plastically”: to render more fully the volume of objects, establishing in theory the allocation of highlights and shadows, deciding on the values of “cold” colours: red, green as semitonal values, the yellows, the azures as light values, the blues and crimsons as dark values. I have imagined the foregrounds as being for the most part backlit, by way of a reaction against the canvases, flat and atmospheric as they were, of the preceding works”. Such indeed has been Leddi’s work for at least two years now, and there is something moving about the fact that – to the extent that he has wholly and consciously mastered this expressive mode of his, which is half allusive and analogical, and half coldly representative of the visual appearances of things – new poetic contents have almost of their own accord emerged from his memory, less as autobiography than as biography, critique and song in praise of a more extensive human condition. Leddi is from the same soil as Pellizza da Volpedo, the man who painted the Quarto Stato. Pellizza, who killed himself, was one of the most gifted of the avant-garde painters immediately preceding Previati and Boccioni. Leddi studied Pellizza in great depth and some of his contrasts between cold bluish highlights and warm gold recall the first brave divisionist emphases of the despairing Piedmontese master. Yet Leddi’s links to the memory of Pellizza would seem to have far less to do with forms than with the latter’s relationship to life, being bitterly aware as Pellizza was of its values, of its exclusions and of its traumas.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria La Nuova Pesa, Rome 1966)
There comes a time for every artist, and it has come now for Piero Leddi, when he enters into a more open dialogue. In the majority of cases, but not always, this coincides with maturity, either in years or in experience. This moment, of fundamental importance in the life of an artist and something of which he is very well aware, consists of a search for a larger figurative space and a greater expressive freedom. We are concerned here with an energy – in the case obviously of those, Piero Leddi indeed among them, who have not year after year been chasing after various fashions, but who have created a world of their own, furnishing others with ideas and solutions – for long contained and repressed, out of either fear or shame (two feelings characteristic of the phase of research) which needs to be released, to expand and, in some cases, to explode. In Piero Leddi’s case, this need, I would not say for a rupture – rarely have I come across a painter as consistent as he is, and as determined to pursue his own researches and to deepen his understanding – but for an open-mindedness, is highly significant, because anyone acquainted with him will know what secret reserves of human warmth he bears within himself. A human warmth that, in part because of the ruggedness of the artist’s own nature, in part because of a fear of certain forms of self-surrender, and in part because of contradictions, has hitherto assumed the guise of a subtle but never complacent violence of the object. Loving the object (more specifically, man, beasts, trees: the man-cow and the tree-man) has in short meant for him not only scrutinising all its innermost fibres – and curiosity in this circumstance is always a painful, if not a cruel fact – but sometimes mistreating or riding roughshod over it. This mistreatment is characteristic of those who fear the irremediable damage perhaps incurred in yielding to an unchecked self-surrender (or to an unchecked enthusiasm). But Piero Leddi now has new resources with which to defend himself from this danger and at the same time to ensure that he does not shrink from the need to communicate, namely, irony, if not indeed, should the need arise, sarcasm. Man, despite all his sufferings, all his humiliations – the artist’s Sardinian experience has been very important to him – and despite his earthly and mortal frame, is always, for Leddi, at the centre of the world. Yet Leddi will never fall into the error of offering an unstinting and unbridled apologia, being well acquainted with man’s less exalted aspects, or even with his deep moral squalor, and will therefore not renounce what today in a hackneyed phrase is defined as denunciation. Is this too a form of affection? Assuredly. A form of affection, with a greater need for solidarity also in order to escape from the closed circle of an exacerbated solitude, but a sure and certain affection nonetheless.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria del Minotauro, Brescia, 1967)
The unknown, disguised proportion discernible in Piero Leddi’s work as it has unfolded, and which initially disorients us, derives from its particular setting. For it is set in a zone situated at the boundary between structure and dissolution, between formal mimesis and mental quotation, where it is often not possible to fathom analytically how much the emotions and instinct on the one hand and a constructive commitment on the other, contribute to the resolution of the picture. It has been argued that one could analyse the real (and not neofigurative) value of the images proposed by Leddi, and thus of their consistent social weighting and volume, dealing with them in a manner that does not obviously tend towards abstraction, since it is on this fulcrum of contrasts and of negations that Leddi’s language has hitherto rested.
Without actually going so far as irony or cruelty – although nonetheless coming close to similar attitudes in relation to the material on which he was working – Leddi has seemed gradually to dispense with whatever in his relationship to things seemed to him to be too material, increasingly neglecting figurative culture, so as to comply with a new order intuited by him precisely in the liminal zone we spoke of above.
The attention paid to movement led him to a drawing that was nervous, and on occasion elusive, and the surface of the pictures began to emerge in a tormented manner, or else there persisted in an embryonic guise the idea of the painter distracted by a complex sequence of goals to be borne in mind. The more recent works reveal a new ordering of Leddi’s interests, since he is now more concerned not only with the resolution of the figure but also with the space in which it acts and evolves. After a total commitment to life, no matter how it manifested itself, and with it being understood on its own terms, the painter has now entered a phase which could be called contemplative. This new phase has to do with an old aesthetic problem, that of the inside-outside, but one that has been recast so far as the various different meanings of the relation between object and environment, between creator, object and user of the work are concerned.
Leddi does not simply consider the superficial reason for a basically changed relationship between the artist and the world, but explores in depth its causes, seeking out the “how”, on the formal plane, of this alteration. He thereby arrives at some propositions for a language that keep certain foundations of lyrical intuition constant, and that display an ever greater evocative intensity.
This schema for research includes the anatomical cross-sections of his human constructions, of man organised in space and with a modern possibility of survival: as a casing emptied out by those tasks, by these dramas, one would wish to say, which are no longer external but, in the ordeal of time, have become his constituent fibres.
In the grey temperas the individual is produced in a stasis such that we cannot tell how much it is sleep and how much it is “death”. Here we encounter Leddi’s new approach, which seeks to capture the definitive balance of forms, no longer described in their fleeting, fluctuating existential progress but in their plastic value, in their weight.
Action, external circumstances, now seem to have been wholly exhausted in Leddi’s previous work, so that in the new figurative testimony, offered with his habitual sense of pictorial scale, if not so impetuously, there appears a new respect for the spatial installation of bodies that continue to be at the heart of his narrative.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria Cantini, Piombino, 1967)
The 1950s and 1960s
Fausto Coppi 1964-73
Texts by Piero Leddi, Antonello Trombadori, Duilio Morosini, Franco Loi, Nicoletta Colombo
In January 1960 Fausto Coppi died. I am unexpectedly moved. I do some drawings in his memory. […] . . .
In 1966 I hold a one-man show at the Galleria La Nuova Pesa in Rome, presented by Antonello Trombadori. The works exhibited are for the most part about the lives of the Coppi brothers. […]
The notes that I had accumulated with a view to representing them were based on the elimination of journalistic rhetoric, knowing full well as I did, through their being my fellow countrymen, just how bleak their lives as gladiators had been. I was trying to recover what their contorted and inhuman efforts had meant, imagining for example what might have gone through their minds, in the hallucinatory and dazed states they endured in the dog days, on the French roads or immediately after the Giro d’Italia.
Gianni Brera compares Fausto to a fish drinking plankton, with a twisted mouth, half-open and gasping for breath.
Or Fausto and the myth of Phaeton, which is a myth from the Po Valley: a horse-bike and Fausto, who fall from the sky.
The duel between Coppi and Bartali, which can be represented in the form of rotations of crank pedal arms and diagrams of progress, of abstract, mechanistic time.
Other written notes: Fausto’s head, in detail, back and handlebars, only the outlines, stress legs and crank pedal arm (lever and rotation).
(from Piero Leddi. Dipinti e disegni, Charta, Milan, 1994)
At first glance Piero Leddi’s canvases reveal a precise, balanced painter, wholly intent upon testing the outcome of the relationship between drawing and colour, and certainly very concerned to leave nothing to chance, to ensure at all costs that the image measures up to the model in his imagination. It is not by chance that I have used the word “outcome” rather than “effect”, precisely because Leddi would not be content with an effect that generously but unpredictably arose through pictorial action in the doing of it and that did not correspond to the outcome anticipated. He is thus a painter concerned to use his mind, but this does not mean that he is lacking in emotion or lyric abandon. Indeed, quite the reverse, for Leddi’s poetic impulse is, in my opinion, essentially lyrical, a lyricism that stems from the love of nature and of the feelings that arise when immersed in a landscape.
[…] In the canvases dedicated to the fable of Fausto Coppi, Leddi has certainly, and in the clearest possible manner, attained a poetic communication of his conflicts. He has found in the fable of Fausto Coppi the deepest and most painful motifs of human kindness and nobility smashed to pieces by a brutal clash both with prejudice and with the harshness of existence and of nature. From these fragments of kindness and nobility that Leddi has managed to isolate in the landscape, as if they were wreckage from an ancient model of beauty, a thread unwinds, and the painter urges us to grab hold of it in order to get out of the labyrinth.
It is in this that the modernity and worth of Piero Leddi’s current paintings consist.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria L’Indiano, Milan, 1964)
“For the most part I have painted “falls” where “hitting the ground”, or “banging your head on the ground” is meant, or falling on your back: a plough, an animal or a bicycle (symbols). It is not in order to denounce nor because I know that if you fall awkwardly someone will find it difficult to pull you up, but in order to recount without detachment all the “tumbling” we have done in moving from one country to another, over the last fifty years, changing occupations and adapting to the new ones without loving them, as if it were an ineluctable destiny. I have tried to tell the story of the Coppis not as if it were a “fable”; the word “kindness” that you yourself used worked well. The kindness of a shy, good-natured people, smashed to pieces for a laugh. I am convinced that the Coppis raced because of an old craving that they bore in their bones, the bones of decalcified peasants, and in order to escape that plight. When Fausto died, I mourned him in Milan; just thinking about him and looking at his old photos still moves me. Not that I have ever thought of him as a “hero”; indeed I believe that his was a sort of “kindness” smashed to pieces, a kindness shared with all those people on an exodus from the countryside, who underwent urbanisations and peasant metamorphoses”.
Leddi has tried to paint exactly what he writes of here, passing from rational moments to lyrical flights to subdued emotion to a brutal clash with the objectivity of the real. […] It is an authentic homage, of vital importance to painting as a form that is indispensable to knowing, to communicating, to breaking down barriers. We are, as may clearly be seen, on the other side of the moon. Hic manebimus optime.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria La Nuova Pesa, Rome, 1966)
Leddi comes from the Po valley and it is by it, now and forever, that his ideas and feelings are galvanised. There is something excruciating about this antithesis between ideas and feelings, because Leddi seeks to dominate its every aspect (let me stress, “every”), and in so doing, he lives out the turmoil of the expressive means to which he “clings”. Here you have the Boccionian synthesis (see certain sketches), and there panicky expressionism, with surreal grafts.
Nowadays he favours the second option. Yet with certain doubts, as if he were compelled to do so, by the crowding in of ideas, by an urgent need to speak. A comparison between the various “narrative” accounts – convulsive or terse as the case may be – of the ways in which Fausto and Serse Coppi met their ends will shed light on this tension.
Let us begin with one of the former, more convulsive accounts, which is larger. Our gaze runs from the top to the bottom of the picture. The greatly magnified wheel, foreshortened, with its spokes, like a “star”. The nodal point of the catastrophe, with the wrecked bicycle, seen as a phantasmagoria of parabolic, tubular lines – upon which are caught and harmed still more the limbs of the defeated man. The fall reaches its end, which is summed up by the body on its back, the fragment of the cogwheel and the Picassoesque bucranium with the metallic horns. Well, in all this frenzied agitation (obstruction of visual memory of the multiple and mental tension encompassing the meaning of the incident in eloquent symbols) the true crux of the painting – the moment of truth – emerges from this, its “finale”. Leddi says that in the Coppis he has seen peasants choosing urbanisation out of a weariness with their humiliating state, and that in their “fall” there is nothing transcendental. Indeed, they are simply settling accounts in a brutal manner with their origin, with the earth.
But let us go back to the start of our argument, and the artist’s torments and contradictions; it is there that he “touches earth”, as if he were reliving in a modern guise the myth of Antaeus, that his painting truly – today – attains its point of greatest consistency (although not renouncing a narrative that proceeds through mental associations). The cow – all muzzle, bone, horn, tail, in a single foreshortened image – that emerges alongside the body dislocated by its heavy fall (La caduta del campione). The man who is done for, beside the ploughshares. The prostrated man, trapped by axes that at one and the same time recall stockades, cane-brakes, and the cross-bar of an imaginary waggon, flanked by the oxen stubbornly advancing.
(Paese Sera, Rome, 3 February 1966)
Castellania, Coppi’s village, sits on the slopes of mount Giarolo, and the fact of Leddi himself belonging to a village, to a mountain, gives the sense of a collective destiny, and of individual adventures that bear the weight of a history and of a chronicle. The painter of the “fallen champion” and of the “death of the champion” is crazy enough to engrave an epic because he is conscious of discovering a history that is his own. Look at these rolling eyes, these torsos like broken trees, these slender shoulder blades; see these shrubs, these clear skies of paper, these ploughshares like bones on the ground; thinking about this picture causes pain, for one is involved in a cruel vision of existences in which the fear of things unknown and having no purpose is stamped on their countenances. [ …] In Leddi’s narrative, Coppi, a name written on asphalt, cement, and in cartoons, a name shouted out excitedly by half of Europe, written in newspaper reports that echo across the whole world, this Coppi from Castellania, an apprentice and provincial from the Apennines, this Coppi is a man in torment and alone, a valley-dweller who struggles and falls, a body that shatters on an earth too mean to offer any sort of heaven.
(from the Presentazione to the Salone dei commercianti, Tortona, 1966)
In order to codify one of the representative myths of the contemporary world, that of Fausto and Serse Coppi, closely linked in its meanings in Piero Leddi’s oeuvre to tradition, social evolution and custom, we should refer it to the culture tied to the rural world from which they came, shaken as it has been by seismic tremors of conflict and epochal change. We need to take account of the anti-naturalistic viewpoint from which the artist, although still attached to the theme of figuration and seeking its transfiguration, has converted an “existential” truth into an impressive array of oil paintings, drawings, watercolours, aquatints and lithographs. […]
Leddi explicitly provides us with a key to interpreting the drawings, engravings and other work on the Coppis. What he communicates through them is a humanised transfiguration of the peasant life that he had known in his youth. He was bitterly aware of how the humble lived, engaged as they were in a perennial struggle with a nature that subjected them to a frugality so extreme as to be almost philosophical, to a shabby capitulation in the face of terrible difficulties, and to the falls occasioned by the sheer speed of post-war cultural change. All of this flowed inexorably into a final bewilderment at the fact of the meaning and role of the land, and of the collective life tied up with the countryside, having been exhausted … […].
The appearance of the theme of the hunt, represented by the animals that often accompany depictions of the Coppis, does not merely constitute an explicit reference to the venatorial art, which was Fausto’s great passion and which brought about his death, but expresses in a symbolic guise the collective dream, one shared by more or less every peasant from the province of Alessandria, of emulating bourgeois society, of adopting at least one of its defining features. For the hunt was at that time identified with a release from poverty and with an escape from the harshness of existence. […]
There are zoomorphic and human images that are hybridised in a sort of “fantastical zoology” after the manner of Jorge Luis Borges in The Book of Imaginary Beings , a symptom of the crisis sweeping the twentieth century, since in its culture the recourse to the representation of animals reflected a collective psychic unease, an attempt in other words to tame the monsters of the soul.
Leddi consistently honours the principles of figuration in a research that frees them from an only slightly organised naturalistic representativity and leads them towards the study of mark-making, to the rule of form in its rigorous, purified structure. Sometimes this form is classically trapped in the equilibrium between the scaffoldings, between the rhythms of fullnesses and emptinesses and between the geometries of the lines, arrangements of rules that the pain of the aquatints or the tragic blotches between the tangles never suck into the maelstrom of irrationality. It is not without reason that the artist has conceived of engraving, in which he has built up a significant body of work, as an excellent method of study, research and discovery. He thus steers the marks towards solutions that express in a flexible layout – at times differentiated into a range of undertones, at times aggressive yet wisely monitored – with the highlights and the shadows, the sensations and the indiscipline deliberately inserted into the moment of emotion and then brought back under expressive-constructive control.
(from Fausto. In memoria di Fausto Coppi 1960-2010, edited by Gianpaolo Ormezzano, Fare Edizioni, Novi Ligure, 2010)
Texts by Piero Leddi, Francesco De Bartolomeis, Mario De Micheli
I was thinking, in 1966-67, that I hadn’t theorised painting and hadn’t even planned overmuch, that it was time to develop practices and techniques in the sense of a craft. I had exhausted certain formal possibilities: I was copying from nature what I saw with my own eyes, and the symbolism that I was trying out had slid into the heraldic and into Tarot cards.
I was incapable of grasping the meaning of the structures of the human body, in terms of the physiognomic aspects that enable one to distinguish one being from another simply from their manner of walking, or because biographies of events accumulate in a plastic sense on a face: dinners, bouts of sleep, lies, insults.
My starting-point was somewhat comical, namely, the decision to record the habitual gestures we use in relation to our heads, such as shaving, combing our hair, putting a spoon into our mouths, putting glasses on, brushing our teeth etc., in short, the accumulation of everyday gestures restricted to the head and face alone. […]
In 1966 I went on a journey to East Germany: Leipzig, Dresden, Buchenwald, the Berlin Wall.
Emotion aroused by the struck head arose during the visit to Buchenwald, when I saw the apparatuses of execution (they fired through an opening at the nape of the neck) and also remembered the footage of Kennedy at Dallas.
The idea gnawing away at me was that of external forces that traumatise. […]
I study the argument, take an interest in medical textbooks: topographic anatomy, x-rays of cranial traumas etc.
The head, as De Bartolomeis says, is the symbol of individual organico-physiological centrality. My intention is to fuse organic and mechanical rhythms. In order to impart a systematic character to expressive research, I abide by the following restriction, namely, a desire to find a way out of naturalism but also to avoid an abstractionism that eludes commentary. [ …]
I describe a whole repertoire of material mechanics and resistance, for example combined compressive and bending stress, flexional torsion, rest, oscillations, decay of forces, etc. And I tend to regard geometry as more essential, as if it were a matter of resolving a theorem. I use non-naturalistic colour, without shadows and with scant plasticity.
I also decide to use conventional marks, after the manner of industrial draughtsmen. […]
As far as light is concerned, I adopt the following solution: a luminous source falls as white from above and takes out the higher parts of the objects; another light source (a type of reflection) rises up from below, an earth red; two others, filtered by what may be vegetation, move horizontally, one from the right and one from the left, while through backlighting the shadow remains in the centre, obtained through what the lights have left.
The results as always have proved ambiguous, in a significant number of studies and engravings, among them Sei teste, lithograph and intaglio engraving, which I print with Giorgio Upiglio.
The abiding sense I have of this work is that I had sought to grasp the change of form that occurs after a wound and during the period of healing, and that I had sought to know the outside from the inside.
(from Piero Leddi. Dipinti e disegni, Charta, Milan, 1994)
Francesco De Bartolomeis
It is not a question here of a physical-dynamic anchorage (the banal notion of man degraded to the level of machine) resolved in mainly geometrical terms as symbols of forces, of vectors, of resistances. What prevails instead is the organic inertia of all this, the outcome a meeting between organic and mechanical rhythms. Hence stresses having the effect of trauma, a psychopathological involvement. The heads endure accidents. The artist explores them, blocks or galvanises their internal relationships, magnifies their particular characteristics in order to discover aspects that go beyond the usual formal recognition of them.
Ambiguity has found a centre, and this centre is studied in depth, and kept at a distance from narrative or supplementary distractions. The whole space of life is reduced to what man manages to feel. The head is the most vital, and at the same time the most abstract thing. Geometrical essentialisation will concede that it is itself false and contradictory because it implies a detachment from a complex organic vitality, a cold specification of images, a facile avoidance of the tangled web of real experiences. Leddi’s research is as distant as can be from a rational one-sidedness.
It would therefore seem plausible to interpret his most recent production as an original and hard-fought attempt to defend figuration and not as a sudden break with earlier research, with a view to turning, without real conviction, to solutions verging on abstraction. This defence is not restricted to the formal sphere because it is concerned rather with a congruence with vital events within a contradictory situation that does not mask and does not hide ambiguity, weakness, insecurity. Being a situation that can thus be penetrated and assailed from all sides, an attempt is made to withdraw in order to withstand the shock. The geometrical elements therefore possess a vital tension, they are living elements that do not conceal their organic origin and the suffering that such an origin entails. It is indeed the relationship between organic and mechanical rhythms that produces an ambiguous situation. The former impart strength but at the same time lead to dissolution. Consequently there are painful impacts, traumas with various effects. Precisely through the situating of itself at points of crisis, Leddi’s research is quite different from the myriad exercises on the theme of the machine and the mechanical that lay claim to being fundamental visual and artistic modernisations.
(from Francesco De Bartolomeis, Piero Leddi, Loescher, Turin, 1970)
Mario De Micheli
Leddi has never felt his “graphic” activity to be marginal. Throughout this period, with a fierce intellectual passion, he has filled thousands of sheets with images: in order to understand, to be understood, to disconnect and to connect the motifs of reality, in order to analyse the situations in which they arise, in order to define them, and in order to decipher their connotations.
It is rare to encounter an artist who has lived and lives his own historical and individual dimension with such moral intensity, and in so unsettled and tormented a state.
Leddi is certainly not a painter in search of a formula offering comfort, exorcism and consolation. The poles of his dialectic may be located in the contradiction between his own peasant origins and the violence attending immigration into the hostile context of urban society. It can be said that every one of his works bears the marks of this conflict, of this reversible love-hate; of the impossible task consciousness faces in maintaining itself in the archaic condition of the “land” and at the same time of the difficulty it faces in inserting itself into the harsh, difficult, insidious “play” of the “city”.
Fascination and repulsion act simultaneously in him, and in two senses, so that nostalgia and refusal, desire and mistrust, critique and eulogy coexist within his moods and inclinations, constituting the terms of his poetics and above all the character, the physiognomy of his expressive practice.
It is not by chance that Leddi, having begun with rural themes, has now taken up with them once again. Look for example at his “studies” of the death of a peasant, in which putting to good use the tough apprenticeship in painterly language served through all these years, he once again tries the path of narrative and fable.
Between that departure and this arrival there are to be found the themes of love in cars, the themes of the fall and of the death of the sporting champion, the aggressive themes of the family and the themes of repression, of which the sequence of struck heads is undoubtedly the noblest outcome. Leddi mingles irritation and elegy, revolt and doubt, epigrammatic wit and fantastical self-surrender, antidotes and poisons in a continuous interchange of manners, of investigations, of graphically conspicuous statements and of negations applied to the quality that he perhaps finds most congenial, namely, a supple and trenchant “writing”.
Those who have sought to interpret Leddi in a different fashion have gone astray. Leddi’s history should be interpreted in terms of the formation of the post-realist generation of Guerreschi, Romagnoni, Ferroni, Bodini. Why should we invent a different history for him and why, above all, merely for reasons of taste, though masked by critical and scientific justifications, should we suppose him to be headed in the opposite direction?
Leddi is now here, and able to stress to us how authentic his itinerary is, and how he has chosen not to betray himself, or the complexity of his past experiences.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria L’Agrifoglio, Milan, 1972)
Symbols and metaphors
Texts by Piero Leddi, Giovanni Mattana, Virginio Giacomo Bono, Franco Loi, Davide Lajolo, Luigi Carluccio, Gianfranco Bruno
At the beginning of the 1970s I try to reconstruct figures with complete structures and I begin to tell Milanese stories, ancient and contemporary. I study the epoch of the plague, the so-called big paintings of St. Carlo [Borromeo], of the painters Cerano, Procaccini, Cairo etc., in short Lombard Mannerism, the trial of the spreaders of plague. All of it intertwined with my familial autobiographies, memories of my village, reworkings of Coppian themes.
I emerge from a period of formal research, which I now use for these projects: reinterpreting the old “guilty conscience” of Milanese culture represented by the story of the Column of Infamy, Verri, Manzoni, Beccaria. Sculptures by Floriano Bodini serve as a reference point for me, especially those treating religious themes.
I have had a long association with Bodini. With the portrait of the Pope from 1968, a sculpture in wood, Bodini points in an original way to a new road to be followed in interpreting in a modern key religious or sacred art, in expressionist terms, and with a critical stance towards the clergy itself.
I shared the irony and the sarcasm. The decision to represent what was anti-heroic, understood also as illness and weakness.
It was right to make a stand against the plastic and celebratory values of the twentieth century, and in a quiet fashion to describe normal existence, interwoven also with unpleasantnesses and illnesses.
This premise serves to justify a moment of particular interest, culminating in the one-man show put on at the Galleria Sollerino in Milan in 1973, which I would have liked to entitle “Plague” – had it not been for the unpleasantness that the works in themselves already demonstrated.
As I have said before, it was my intention to paraphrase the plague of Carlo Borromeo’s day, using the situation in Milan in the 1970s.
Of the main titles I would like to call to mind:
Il miracolo della bambina, after Cerano’s painting. The scene is set in a temple; at the centre there is a lame little girl. By means of invisible strings St. Carlo in the clouds of Paradise sets her on her feet again. The previous iconography was that of the stigmata of St. Francis which were sent to him by the crucified Babe.
S. Sebastiano, mythical Milanese kouros, as well as being patron saint of Milan, precisely through a miracle in time of plague. His anatomy inscribed in six circles with shadow centred in contre-jour.
Giangiacomo Mora, the principal spreader of plague from the Column of Infamy.
Il carro di Milano, parody of the famous print that depicts the torture of Mora and of Piazza, guilty of being the bearers of plague.
I had intended to combine Milanese architecture with the reconstruction of a waggon drawn by oxen. Giangiacomo Mora and Pizza were brought to the Vetra bound back to back, seated on benches.
In order to devise an assuredly exaggerated parody, and to employ excessive irony, I replaced the protagonists with “immigrants”, namely, I myself, with relatives and friends.
La grande vacca. It sprang from a dream narrative, of a cow at pasture and of a leper and a snake, this latter attracted by the milk. Kindling wood and leaves on the ground, the moon in broad daylight, sun that comes and goes.
I thought of a frame of bone, covered by hides.
Festa sul Ticino, in reality the tragedy of Seveso.
Among other works I also exhibited the triptych Bifolco, Mungitrice, Capraio.
From this moment on I began to develop classical symbols drawn from astronomical mythologies, themes from classical mythology, but freely, in order to discover contemporary symbols.
(from Piero Leddi. Dipinti e disegni, Charta, Milan, 1994)
Leddi does not yield to the enticements of repetition. The consequence is discernible not only in the coherence within individual works but also over the long term where, despite the alternation between complete cycles and particular episodes, one may discern a fundamental continuity. Analysis of the language used thus brings out plastic values of nobly expressive potential (as in the studies of mother and child or in the heads) and moments of heightened and deeply felt dominance of the mark-line, in which the use of a spiky idiom seems to bring the power of the irrational to the fore and in which conflict, which is always present, seems to resolve itself into defeat, impotence and the negative (one may recall the falls, the discussions, the depictions of love in cars).
His artistic language is invariably characterised by the construction of idea-images which are obtained through an angry, unceasing quest (as an impressive body of drawings attest) and which achieve, with the simplest of means, extraordinary expressive syntheses (exemplified by some of his depictions of mother and child).
[…] It is natural then that he should see man as the obligatory crucible of all the conflicts and that man should become the protagonist of his painting. But what specific conflicts? Leddi absorbs with particular intensity those associated with the most intimate family relationships and with their umbilical link to the depths. Consider the themes “birth”, “family”, “family descent from the Cross”, “family meal”; consider the very broad range of implications contained in the polysemy of the figures of maternity. (How can one resist referring to depth psychology, to the dialectics of the mother-daughter relationship, to love-hate, to freedom-tyranny, to those familial relationships whose potential ambiguities are all very much in evidence?). But the familial conflict extends to the interpersonal one, to that of living in civil society: man as creator-victim, man as brother-enemy, the neighbour-stranger, will and impotence, debate and incommunicability, hope and disappointment. The themes of “discussion”, “discussion in the trap”, “tram”, “love in a car” testify to such concerns, though always in a problematic way. So too do more recent themes such as “miracles of St. Carlo – the new plague”, “the descent from the cross”, “St. Anne”. These latter themes, in which a rereading of Cerano and of Leonardo is discernible, likewise testify, in their own fashion, to the fact that Leddi’s concern to problematise is historical, and not only in the sense of his possessing an enduring awareness of pictorial tradition.
[…] Sometimes the conflict tends to be resolved in favour of the inorganic, with an accentuation of the elements of pessimism and impotence as much in terms of forms as in that of colours, but at other times, especially when colour-form-surface predominates (so alert is Leddi that he seems almost to be absorbing the lesson of Matisse-Poliakoff), he achieves a highly personal resolution through more placid idea-images.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria L’Incontro, Vicenza, 1972)
Virginio Giacomo Bono
The plumb line in the innermost recesses of the subconscious sinks without compunction. “What I intend to do is to obey my poetic needs, moving from the irrational to the rational”. Research into expression proceeds in parallel, with carefully considered theoretical supports: “Painting is an operation that involves taking out and putting in. Putting in must be understood as taking out and vice versa. One part often prevails over the other, creating an imbalance as regards the values of unity and expressive synthesis”. He goes on to add: “Conviction as regards the subject should bring me to a synthesis-purification- cleansing of language”.
We discover in the psychic depths a reality of traumas that the clash with reality renders so acute as to culminate in neurosis. Indeed, from 1961 representation in an expressionistic-luministic vein involves having recourse to a singular psychoanalytic and technological symbolic system. The forces of the irrational overwhelm the instinctual vectors of physiological-organic vitalism and collide within the structures of the preordained, the rational, the mechanical. [ …] Thus the shocks pile up and the images become counterposed, superimposed and increasingly complex, with chromatic contrasts that range from the warm but always somewhat morbid timbres of the ochres, the pinks and the reds, to the rotting greens and the icy blues. The layers of colour are however thin, contrived, unreal, always subordinated to an incisive though unstable mark-making that links memory to the present, the obscure forces to lucid intellectual clarifications. And as a captivating effect this mark-making introduces or releases forces, links up the backgrounds to the foregrounds, the distorted or allusive images to space [… ].
Every myth is dismantled. The satire about the intellectuals thus has an almost Picassoesque destructive charge: it is a germination of disturbing but icy cold impersonal presences with hints of agonised convulsion under a harsh light that imprisons or disperses the elements of a by now disconnected narrative.
(from V.G. Bono, Realismo “critico”. Il divenire di una poetica, 1972)
Piero Leddi had intended to sum up this research of his under the name of “plague”, and then later, more subtly, under that of illness. He sought to steer clear of the argument in his own writings. It seems to me, however, that a convergence of elements concerned with this motif is a very important feature of his work.
Those who are well versed in history know that there is not exactly an abundance of “agreeable things”, even if there is a great deal of leeway granted in “popular history”. Does anyone in fact find the history and chronicles through which we are living to be pleasant?
It is more probable that we are concerned here with the eternal controversy between two opposed worlds, and with the inner contradiction of a culture that is rooted in two modes of being, living and “enjoying” socially the fruits of labour. There are still some who are inclined to consider the present to be “the best of all possible worlds”, while others are unable to do so, simply because they endure and suffer the “worst” of them.
“Giangiacomo Mora and Guglielmo Piazza…, certain that they would, though innocent, be vengefully put to death, innocent if not otherwise than by virtue of justice having forced them to lie, in their travails did not even have the strength that is a characteristic attribute of great scoundrels, a strength the abuse of which might cause them to be dragged to their atrocious end.
Placed atop a high waggon, drawn the whole length of the street that runs from the Capitano di Giustizia to the Carrobbio, there their right arms were chopped off; then, having reached the Vedra, the place of torture, they had their bones broken one by one; and interwoven into the wheel, and then raised up, they remained alive for six hours, amid agonies such as the imagination cannot even bear to think on! And what of their poor wives and children? Finally, butchered and burnt, their ashes were cast into a nearby stream”. This is how a passage from the Ragionamenti by signor Cesare Cantù in the Processo agli untori reads.
Piero Leddi has devoted a great deal of work to these events, studying books and images from the period, even if only a single picture named after the surgeon Giangiacomo Mora features here. But other “panels”, such as the San Sebastiano, or the Compianto per Serse, may perhaps contain some traces of these Ragionamenti.
What I feel that I should bring out, following the arc of this work, is the place that man occupies in it.
[…] I am sorry to resort to quotations so often, yet such is my respect for certain men and for culture, that it seems only right to get them to say whatever best expresses my thought: the man before whom Leddi places us resembles the one whom Vittorini tries poetically to sketch as he who “bears the sorrow of the world on his back”.
I think that the “unpleasantness” in Leddi’s way of doing things is in fact a signal merit.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria Solferino, Milan, 1973)
Piero Leddi is undoubtedly one of those bizarre Piedmontese characters who will teach you a lesson although you can never teach them one. Because they already know it and they have macerated it so much within that they consider it to have been dealt with, learned and digested once and for all.
I got to know him so long ago, this fellow countryman of the racers Serse and Fausto Coppi, and even then I had been struck by his painting, his culture, his sure touch in public discussion, and his ties, above all his ties of flesh and blood with his people and his land which grows grass and grain and honey and so much else beside the river Curone and near to Tortona.
[…] His pictures bear the mark of a painter who instead of veering off towards cosmopolitanism or ellipses and arcane dreams that are visionary and otherwise, delved ever deeper into the house of the ancestors. And the ancestors are painters steeped like him in earth and plants, in the winters and summers of Tortona, like him they smell of the countryside, of elder, clover, and they are all beset with brambles. Their language is that of a peasant civilization, of an art of and for man: they are Patri, they are Pellizza da Volpedo. Indeed, Leddi plunges his roots as a painter into something more distant still, researching as he does the stories about the plague bearers, and recovering the tortured Giangiacomo Mora and his torturers.
Leddi’s painting burdens itself with time, tradition, revolt and with the most modern forms of dispute. His figures look skeletal and in his fine presentation Franco Loi speaks of illness and unpleasantness.
And I say yes to Loi’s concept, and no to the reality of Leddi’s pictures. They are however imbued with a subtle, piercing fascination. They speak to you of death but are indeed life after it has reemerged from the tortures and the falls, be it the Moras or the Coppis, be it the peasants wrangling, or the heads or the pantograph on the grass, be it even poor St. Sebastian.
But since Leddi is used to saying everything, we find now that he has become a writer and explains the motifs of the paintings, he explains his figures as characters. And I would argue that he writes as well as he paints. Because he writes and depicts only what is essential. There’s a whole argument to be had about his colours, and about his reds that are redolent of soft, crumbling walls, where the green of the grass is about to grow, that rugged quest of his for language in the guise of slow words and peasant pauses. His manner of painting even the smallest spaces, even the frame. This is the malady of perfection because Leddi does not so much make his pictures as give birth to them. They are his creatures, they are as it were his children, and he talks to his paintings, is in a dialogue with them and argues with them.
(Giorni-Vie Nuove, 27 June 1973)
Leddi’s history has moved between the two poles of origin and condition. One can understand how these two extremes have been brought back by the artist to the node of existential drives that constitute the original circumstance of the person. Because it is here, in the shocks of a life ensnared in the closely woven web of an alienating society, that glimmers of insight into an authentic existence arise. Leddi is well aware that this authenticity cannot be revealed in the themes of painting, even if they are often the key to reaching the heart of the problem. Hence his dashing between automatism and gesture. By this means, without deviating from an objectivity of forms and of figures – like an image that detaches the object only slightly from its focus and thereby reveals an unknown, quivering life within it – he discovers in the lopsided structure of the forms the deep chasm between the given and the lived.
The themes of the confrontation between origin and condition, be it in the form of love in cars, the family or discussion, are lived from the inside, as a drama of self-recognition enacted through the motifs of collective alienation. This is why Leddi’s realism, should we choose to call it that, is not concerned with objects, with chronicling and not even with history, but is to be understood as a continuous bringing into relation of painting with the fundamental convergence of existential drives that constitutes the deepest identity of the person. One can readily understand his more recent recourse to historical myth, to the symbolic image: because symbol and myth return us to a collective reality that is not circumscribed, they incline towards individual reality, and at the same time link individuality, by way of obscure regions, to everyone’s history. There is a deeply interesting painting from 1974, Sant’Anna con il vitello. The Freudian theme of generation is there reinterpreted by means of the introduction of the calf, a figure of conjunction with mother earth. And the movement of the figures runs through from the mother to the daughter to the baby, in a wrapping around of masses as entrails issuing from the bowels of the earth. Hence too the recourse to an extreme dryness in mark-making that confers a restrained rigour upon Leddi’s image, the hint of something ancient that his recent works possess, which may be explained by the artist’s need to restore the extraordinary detachment of style from a matter that is so incandescent because lived out through his own contested identity.
(from the Presentazione at the Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara, 1975)
In Leddi the drawing tends always to be formally elegant because it is a feature that forms part of the artist’s wisdom prior to its being a part of his ability: the composition always encloses within a clearly planned grid the glimmers and glints of the form, because it is the hallmark of a vision entirely dominated by the senses and by the mind. Drawing and composition realise in close symbiosis a highly refined instrument. An instrument well-adapted to communicating in the most fascinating ways (fascination is a genuine aspect of works of art) the poignant and ambiguous “prophecy of the present” that would seem to us to constitute the crux of Leddi’s pictorial vision.
(Panorama, 31 May 1977)
Il Carro di Milano and la Festa sul Ticino
Texts by Enzo Fabiani. Giorgio Seveso, Elvira Cassa Salvi
Around twenty years of research, passion, discouragement and anger have gradually matured Piero Leddi, and he has thereby become a man and artist destined to find his own voice, his own accent. He has found it through a sort of slow martyrdom which, in order to become such, in other words, in order to become a precise and not a disturbed testimony, requires a rare spiritual and intellectual strength, and at times an actual heroism, and not simply a poetic one. It is the outcome of a research that has led Leddi to advance by means of pictorial cycles [… ].
A poetic adventure that has something of the land and of the middle ages about it; that is linked to natural and domestic events (the thunderstorm, the mooing of cows, the bite of the adder); that advances with anger and difficulty like a living sap inside a tree bitten by a cruel frost; that recognises flowers and plants, and the insects which are their enemies; and that nonetheless is fully aware that every event even if natural only has meaning if it is in relation to man.
[…] We are thus in a world that is compact and violent, but also psychologically disposed to contemplation on the one hand and to exaltation on the other.
Contemplation of natural phenomena (consider certain descriptions by Paul the Deacon), of faces, of domestic images. Exaltation of the “heroes” of the neighbourhood, of the village: who are mourned when they meet a tragic end (and hence the laments for Serse Coppi), though always remaining symbols on account of the courage they displayed in going away, in climbing out of the gutter, and leaving poverty behind.
Now these brief remarks are not intended to serve as a history of Leddi’s activities, which is already very long. I simply seek to understand at least some of the motifs in his singular and tragic world; to seek to understand its intellectual and human substance, the strength and authenticity of which serves to distress, and almost to humiliate or discourage him; to seek to understand how this great Lombard, in whose blood there is probably a dash of the ancient Ligurian (and here there are further glimmers of light, because I believe firmly in the importance of the ancestors), can gradually ascertain what his testimony is and must be. [ … ]
And here I would wish to quote in full the startling pages that Leddi has written on the birth of these pictures (and they confirm that he is a genuinely singular writer), where among other things we read: “To represent the Milanese landscape of public buildings, a white and red architecture: marble and bricks. Triennale, Angelicum. Arengario, Piazza degli Affari. A waggon with oxen – as architectural device – with many details. Triumphal car or car of torture. In Mora’s, the smoking brazier, the pincers; repenting and praying; good thieves, there’s always Jesus – and the unpleasant part is played by the administration … [ … ]
I have seen this waggon, and then I’ve thought of it in relation to myself, my father and my brothers, as if we had come to Milan with our own ox-drawn waggon; and then, through some imponderable turn of events, everything was utterly changed; indeed in our feelings we began to destroy ourselves.”
It is a tragic, solemn poem, narrated with a love and sense of involvement that has never stood in the way of a precise, profound objectivisation. There is something stranger, in a certain sense, about the other picture of the great cow, where the seventeenth-century teaching seems to break down into particulars (the tail, the hooves) and in a hint of bewitchment that might please a surrealist. But at any rate these pictures (and the preparatory studies in particular) cannot help but convince, not least because of how the pictorial intelligence succeeds in balancing past and present, in bringing ancient or rural things back to life again, and with a modern meaning; and because of how bravely these subjects are recreated, beyond any representative or illustrative intent.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria d’arte Radice, Lissone, 1974)
The theme that Piero presents is anxiety when faced with a world that is no longer made to our measure, that no longer has our form: it is an anxiety that has always been at the heart of his painting, from when, in the post-war 1950s, Leddi first arrived in Milan and intertwined his own peasant roots with the turbulent and urgent cultural circumstances of those days.
His images are at that date dissolved, indignant, jostled by the brutality of an urban or bourgeois consolidation that denies or overturns every authentically human value, that confounds every possible solidarity between man and his everyday world. In a sort of existentialist (or existentialistic) vision of the disruptive pictorial gesture, the image is rethought only in the sphere of the probable, beset as it is by moods that are indeed distressing and tend to inhibit every more direct, more explicit message.
They are clotted traces, rapid syntheses, lumps of high-pitched emotion which slowly, with the passing of the years and of the seasons, then come to be organised, kneaded and stretched into schemae that are more thought through and more refined, more in keeping with the incipient conventions gf the great figurative teachings that Leddi rediscovers. Dürer, Lombard mannerism, high Baroque then become an unexpected and extraordinary way for him to link up again on the one hand with the lumbering and misty epic qualities of his countryside and of peasant existence, and, on the other, to read differently and assimilate pioneers like Boccioni, Giacometti or Bacon.
Anxiety is all around us, in the killing fields of the non-wars in all four corners of the world, as it is in the shattering violence of the cement megapolises, in the blazing hatred that separates man from man, as in the poison cloud that, one fine morning, rises up in Lombardy in order to mark forever, as a symbol, the extreme sickness of our culture. And if anxiety, in the preceding works and cycles, was mirrored face to face in the spectre of the plague, with the reek of the fumigations and the funeral pyres, in the hoarse cries of the Milanese and of the priests around the Column of Infamy, today, in the images from the Festa del Ticino, Leddi has placed it in an allegory that is much closer to us, one that lends body and substance to an irremediable sense of alarm, to a disquiet fashioned out of monstrous certainties. [ … ]
In this work Leddi has achieved a stylistic maturity and unity that is highly robust, unusual and convincing. We are faced here with what may well be the loftiest and most fully resolved moment in his painting, where he arrives at an extreme and feverishly perfect confluence between form and meaning, between a pelting plurality of themes, or of ideas with multiple entanglements and a highly resolute and passionate rigour.
The landscape is polycentric, shattered by lines of flight that are clashing, anxious, unsettled by ambiguous distances. The animals die, slain by the poison and lying among the objects abandoned by the local inhabitants. There is a mood of flight, of a hurried exodus: a climate (which is a mental climate, a poetic projection) of dissolution, of a shivering precariousness.
On the esplanade the protagonists are in fact ashen spectres, incarnate shades in the grip of worn-out illusions while distant banners signal a last, impossible festival. The mothers no longer have a face, or breath, nor do they show any signs of life: they simply hold open their hands in a despairing and futile attempt to defend their children.
The images of tragedy are reinforced by those of dream and symbol, autobiographies, memories, the shattered tessellae of consciousness. A boy still imitates the improbable flight of an eagle; someone plays an instrument, muses, works, plays. [ … ] What we therefore have is a complex interweaving, dense with allusions, with ill-defined emblems, with figural hyperboles. An interweaving sustained by a fervent desire to plumb greater poetic and structural depths and in which Piero grasps and hints at glittering fragments of universal, subterranean truths, slowly revealing the yawning abyss of fragility and alarm that lurks beneath all of our certainties. An interweaving, in short, in which the contemporary context of man is investigated by means of a complete conjunction of sentiments and judgement; in which there is no distance (save that of the true, the most elevated poetry) between painting and life.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria Spazio Immagine, Milan, 1979)
Elvira Cassa Salvi
The one-man show mounted in recent days [ … ] brings us into the presence of one of the most intense and authentic painters, and not only in Italy, upon whom the human need to know one another, to confront one another, and to communicate can rely. His highly measured tendency to translate the skeleton of the physical animal into structures that live through a complex, very intricate relationship of analogy and contrast, at one and the same time, with mechanical structures, has attained a solution of rare intensity and formal clarity.
This skeleton – in a literal sense, because Leddi’s eyes scan the world with the piercing aggression of a radiological apparatus – this skeleton, as I was saying, emerges with its aggressive tensions from a complex and contradictory chromatic web, which Leddi assimilates into the prevalent mood of dramatic, authentic, undefended mannerism of recent years; a variation that is more reflective, more affected by an expressionistic sensibility and anguish, which like a molten river has come down to us across the woods, rocks and deserts of the century. [ …]
And in colour there have been deposited, and are being deposited the feelings distilled in an experience of life that is abstract and captive, flattered and wounded by the city, by the place that wrests you from rural solitude and returns you to a more poignant and absurd urban solitude. The city thus wrests you from the anguish of an original poverty and returns you to the poverty reproduced through the competition of urban consumption; it removes you from the violence of a primitive world and subjects you to the unbearable ordeal of a myriad highly refined violences, dissimulated and disseminated down the chain of hours and days.
But henceforth we should not think in terms of a form-colour relationship that is still difficult and marked by motifs of hostility and heterogeneity. Leddi’s expressive lexicon sustains the interplay of tones, just as the calligraphy of the sixteenth-century Mannerists obeys their chromatic inspiration. Drawing has broken free from the nodes of a fleshless, not to say a flayed reality, and without losing the incisiveness, the plastic vigour it once possessed, it has yielded to the delights of colour and of its poisons. A poisoned, aggravated drawing, tautened through the modulations of a highly tender and heart-rending musicality, traces a warp and woof full of tricks and provocations which are immediately gathered together by colour.
The key work in the show is entitled Festa sul Ticino. This reminds us of utterly different works, in which their respective authors set out to say things, in their own idiom, not so very far removed from those addressed by Leddi. Consider Guttuso’s Spiaggia; which in its day and in its turn had called to mind Seurat’s La Grande Jatte. In truth a very different sort of painting and yet nonetheless a mannerist painting, given that every period has its own mannerism; and the things said are certainly different, but are however in an analogous relationship to their own time.
(Giornale di Brescia, 29 October 1980)
The 1980s and the 1990s
The French Revolution
Texts by Piero Leddi, Anna Finocchi, Mario De Micheli, Michel Vovelle, Raffaele De Grada
The research began in 1985. In 1987 I exhibited Il giuramento della pallacorda at the Biennale nazionale d’arte Città di Milano, a painting that won the first prize.
The following year I had a show at the headquarters of the Banca Popolare di Milano in Rome, the presentation being by Anna Finocchi […]. It was also in 1988 that I exhibited a portfolio of engravings at Shop Art di Milano, entitled Donne della Rivoluzione francese.
The work on these themes culminated in a one-man show at the Castello Sforzesco, Omaggio alla Rivoluzione francese, promoted by the Comune di Milano to mark the bicentenary of ’89.
At the beginning there had simply been an infatuation with neoclassical architecture, and with the historical period.
I visited the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, studied the paintings of David, Fuseli, Giani, the architectural designs of Boullée and Ledoux, but also the actual sites, the Milanese and Lombard architecture of the Cisalpine Republic, the literature of the Enlightenment, Antolini’s prints of the Foro Bonaparte, Cagnola’s plans, Canonica’s Arena. But above all else I was captivated by the Encyclopédie: the silvery light pouring through the windows of the workshops, the shapes of the tools used in all the manufacturing processes, the gaiety of the ribbons, and likewise of the fabrics, the Tableaux Historiques de la Révolution Française, the sheer fascination of the main protagonists, Michelet’s narrative.
If I devoted so much time to this project, it was due to the interest I felt for many topics: protagonists, objects, landscape, architectures, animals, stories, celebratory machineries, costumes – as if making a film […].
In 1989 the show was first put on, alongside works by other artists addressing the same topic, at the Palais du Parlément Européen in Strasburg, and then in 1990 as a one-man show at the Istituto culturale italiano in Lyons. That same year I also exhibited a selection of paintings about Giacobinismo italiano at the Teatro civico di Tortona (with a presentation by Franco Della Peruta).
Il giuramento della pallacorda. 20 June 1789. Wind and rain in the great chamber of the courtiers’ “jeu de paume”, high windows with the curtains billowing. Ceiling-sky, scudding clouds.
Grand peur and Germination. The great corpse and the Great Fear, Voltaire’s triumph, the site was supposed to be the symbol of the territory of France. Hidden within it there was a great body in a state of germination, a great mother fertilising the earth.
In the shadows a fear that is not yet dissolved.
Festa dell’Essere Supremo. Robespierre lights the combustible statues prepared by David: Atheism, Egoism, Nothingness, Crime, Vice. Beneath them other statues appear: Wisdom emerges from their midst, wreathed in smoke.
L’albero della libertà. It will be anthropomorphic, men will dress and undress it. Pruned, grafted, moved from its place of origin, denatured, schizophrenic. Infected by human illnesses. Estranged from production and from exploitation.
(from Piero Leddi. Dipinti e disegni, Charta, Milan, 1994)
Leddi does not treat the history of art as a repertoire of subjects recycled to suit each and every occasion: the bicentenary of the French Revolution has not in short provided him with an “opportunity not to be missed”. Leddi has already been working on these themes for some years: a wide-ranging and highly lucid investigation into the historical sources, in particular the visual ones, and an investigation that is translated into a deeply original pictorial synthesis. We should therefore not simply identify the hints deriving from David’s great paintings and from the rich revolutionary iconography – which, however, in Leddi’s oeuvre are in no way random pointers towards comparison – but we should examine the consistent prosecution of an investigation that Leddi has been conducting for decades now into the human body and into the spaces of architecture and of nature, as well as into certain episodes and protagonists in the history of art. An investigation that condenses into pictorial solutions of great theatrical wisdom, in which carefully calculated perspectival effects and subtle geometrical schemas are combined with the originality, concision and power of chiaroscuro and chromatic solutions.
The rigour and coherence of the pictorial research is complemented by the lucidity of the artist’s participation in history. Lucidity here does not signify a calculated coldness but an authentic awareness, which can also allow itself irony or else the forceful expression of passion, without ever succumbing to a complacent nostalgia or to rhetorical overstatement. A deep connection with history is a constant of Leddi’s work, and it is his sustaining of an intensive dialogue with certain episodes from the past that warrants his measuring of himself against it.
“I don’t bother with quotations. I like to study” – Leddi declared in an interview from some years ago. Where studies are concerned, he is however not acquainted with the aridity of classification and the detachment of distance, but he tackles them simply with enthusiasm and a curiosity prompted by empathy, in search of the nodes that may tie the past to the present. Leddi recognised one of these nodes in the revolutionary and neoclassical utopias, and gave an interpretation of it in the large canvases of the Arco della Pace and of the Parco Sempione from 1985. The massive amount of work on these themes that Leddi has done in recent years confirms his qualities as history painter, in the most elevated sense of that term.
It is for all of the above reasons – through its never being mere illustration, never random recovery or plundering of images from the past, never a disengaged refusal to face up to reality and the present (“I turn towards the present, in a cloud of unknowing”) – and through the sheer depth of his sophisticated and impassioned research, that Leddi’s work is accorded a place in a history text like L’eredità della Rivoluzione francese, published by Laterza, in which it serves not as an agreeable and extraneous ornament, but as an independent, particular, challenging interpretation.
(from the Presentazione at the Banca Popolare di Milano, Rome, 1988)
Mario De Micheli
Piero Leddi has been immersed in the themes and images of the French Revolution for over four years now. For him they have been years of study, enquiry, research. To seek him out in his studio is a surprising adventure, for it is like traversing a perplexing labyrinth dense with alluring points of reference. The itinerary is erratic, unfolding on two floors up and down short flights of steps and along narrow passages, in rooms in which we encounter huge canvases peopled by figures in action, by faces in the grip of intense emotion, by dramatic presences. Yet in and amongst the pictures in the light or turned to the wall, the couches, the cluttered chairs and the symbols of 1789 affixed to the walls, there are also dictionaries, old and precious volumes [ … ]. There are also of course the classic texts, from Michelet to Mathiez and leading up to the most recent ones, from Furet to Vovelle. But […] a neoclassical drawing by Felice Giani is also to be seen. Leddi says: “Giani was from my own village, San Sebastiano Curone”. And he is evidently thrilled by this common origin […].
The bicentenary is certainly a wonderful opportunity to exhibit this extraordinary cycle of works that Leddi has so assiduously brought to completion, but when he first embarked upon the project he in no way conceived of so dense an accumulation of individual works, studies, drawings and sketches. The theme was leavened, articulated and rendered imposing by virtue of the sheer range of arguments and lines of enquiry that it gradually drew along with itself and which could not be evaded. But above all else, through working upon it, Leddi came to discover how every motif, every problem from that distant past foreshadowed or had the capacity to foreshadow the difficulties of the present, the loftiest reasonings and ideals of the times in which we happen to live and act. And this, in my opinion, is really why, once he had begun to paint or draw one or two of the works on the Revolution, he had the sense of mining an inexhaustible seam and has therefore followed this vein up until the present day, in a state of bewilderment and enthusiasm […]
Leddi’s works are first and foremost the far from impromptu fruit of a long period of reflection and love, nurtured by the passionate reading of iconographic repertoires and by reconnaissances in the domain of anecdote. Political and intellectual interest, in his endeavours as a “producer of images”, is combined with cultural scruple and the demands of a knowledge that is not superficial. And yet these are nonetheless not really the qualities that characterise his works, even if the imprint of such qualities is clear. What gives shape and a vibrancy to his images is above all the formal urgency that determines their marks, look and graphic impulse. There is always a poetic frisson to the gestures of the figures that appear on his canvases and there is always an invigorating plasticity and enlivening breath in the scenes in which such gestures are made. But the question is this: from where exactly do the places, milieux, architectures, sequences that constitute the warp and woof of his figurative narratives come to him? From where do the details of the truth come – I mean also the details of objective truth – which his own imagination, in pursuing the definition of its own representations, cannot do without?
(from Piero Leddi. Omaggio alla Rivoluzione francese, Electa, Milan, 1989)
In his impassioned interrogation of the French Revolution, it was inevitable that Piero Leddi would run up against the festival. The theme is not alien to him, since he had already tackled it over ten years ago (Ballo all’Arena, 1976; Festa sul Ticino, 1976-1978), depicting unsettling festivals set in arenas to which we will return later.
In the series of questionings Leddi has directed at the Revolution, the festival has a particular role, being the focus of sketches that are forever being reworked and of questions that are continually being reformulated. It is not a case here of seeking out a particular man, be it Marat or Robespierre, of identifying his defining characteristics or of placing him in a context, still less of evoking a particular episode, even the Tennis Court Oath. It is rather the meaning itself of the event that must be grasped, starting with one of its most mysterious episodes – an episode in which the revolutionary hero faces up to the judgement of he whose existence he proclaims as he presents himself in the bright light of the sun at the centre of which there shines the judging eye.
In order to represent it, Piero Leddi has chosen three sequences, from among the scenes that the journée of 20 Prairial Year II offered him, without confining himself to a mere chronicle in the guise of images that the contemporary iconography suggested to him. [ … ] He has identified, as I have said, three crucial sequences: a first, central theme, around the mountain raised in the middle of the Champ de Mars, where the procession of the Convention and of the Parisian people flowed; another, taking as its starting point the waggon of agriculture laden with ornaments and symbols, which was one of the elements most in view in the procession as it set out from the Hôtel de Ville. A third theme, finally, less directly linked to the events of that day, had to do with the liberty tree – certainly one of the scene’s key motifs, since it was located both at the summit of the mountain and on the waggon of agriculture – but also a festive symbol, to be considered in and of itself, at the foot of which the dance of liberty unfolded.
This threefold choice is in itself significant: it fixes what the imaginary of a contemporary artist – who was moreover steeped in the iconographic expressions of the period – had grasped, or rather selected, from an episode that deeply “fascinated” the historians of the Revolution, beginning with Michelet.
We also cannot help but compare Piero Leddi’s composition with one of the most impressive Roman festivals of 1798, the festival of Federation held in the piazza San Pietro, as represented in a painting by Giani. There is thus the same staging, with four monumental columns surmounted by statues, around the altar of the Fatherland, which one approached by climbing a flight of steps. There is a fundamental difference, however. Giani’s painting, through his use of a shot from below, stresses the ascending movement of the groups and corteges that climb up towards the approaches to the altar, in an open perspective.
In his composition Piero Leddi sought the opposite effect, in that his shot from above places what is almost an abyss between the protagonists in the foreground, and the object, near and far, of their contemplation, turning Robespierre into a sort of Moses, whom we can represent to ourselves as he contemplates the promised land, or the burning bush of the divine image.
We wonder about these protagonists. That the artist has not sought to evoke a crowd is not saying much. Certain sketches are in fact almost depopulated, or feature in the foreground no more than a few idle onlookers, viewed shoulder on, generally naked, if we except some details of their dress. A nod towards the neoclassical style of the David of The Tennis Court Oath, one might well say, if one did not come across the shapes favoured by the painter, and the counterpoint, which he prefers, between the fluidity of the human form and the sharp constructions featuring in his architectural conceptions. Leddi has therefore populated his pictures, but in a highly discreet manner, at any rate as regards the central scene, in which scattered groups are situated at various levels, without thereby affecting the intended impression of a scene that is empty and drenched in sunlight.
One would say that it is the moment just before the festival – the arrival of the various groups. But perhaps the festival will not take place, perhaps it is simply this contemplation from a distance, with some in a state of abstracted reverie, though others may be more convinced … Then, from drawing to drawing, Robespierre’s presence looms larger; it is he who will supply not so much the finishing touches to this scene but rather its meaning. [ … ]
A further image – that of the waggon of agriculture – has been singled out by Piero Leddi and used in his subsequent questionings [ …].
From the Festival of the Supreme Being of the Year II up until the agriculture festivals that under the Directory would be integrated into the cycle of annual celebrations, such references were a constant feature […].
Where can we find Piero Leddi in all of this? First of all, I would note that he for his part still has very strong ties with everything having to do with the things of the fields. He loves the trees, he loves the objects, the traditional tools, which are massive, simple and yet complicated, as the waggon of agriculture itself may be, and then he loves the beasts – caprine or bovine, with which since the very beginnings of his artistic production he has had a difficult physical relationship of familiarity and aggression at one and the same time. It is therefore tempting to say that the representation he gives us of the waggon of agriculture has its origins in the initial group of these mighty oxen, which are massive in their slow movement, images of a stubborn and wild force, in keeping with the power of the waggon they are hauling. The group of oxen – resembling buffalo with their big horns and powerful necks – attract Piero Leddi’s attention, one might say step by step, as he advances from the first drawings to the completed work. It calls to mind a whole inheritance, that of the late nineteenth-century painters practising verismo, the singers of a rural world and its hidden forces. The presence of nature is heightened by the play of shadows and light in a scene, at first conceived as gloomy, then as drenched in the dazzling sun of a summer afternoon. A lumbering tread evoked by the heavy yoke in motion, redoubled by the shadows cast on the ground. [ … ]
In his own way Piero Leddi has turned the waggon of agriculture into a triumph, if not of the French people then at any rate of the Revolution. In its pyramidal composition, nature remains ubiquitous, not only through the animal strength of the waggon, but through the symbol of a gigantic ear of wheat and of a tree that crowns the moving structure, which is itself wild and shaggy, an expression of nature at liberty as opposed to nature enslaved, surmounted by a cockade inscribed within the triangle of divinity. The towering construction could be seen as the actual symbol of the work of the Revolution, from its broad, powerful base – the force of things, perhaps? – to the thrusting upwards of the branches of the liberty tree in their bid to conquer the heavens. But between the two levels we find the action of men and of the images that represent them, through the various faces of the Revolution. [ … ]
So it is that the Revolution advances, between shadows and highlights, at the slow pace of the oxen, an image at one and the same time of fatality and liberty, beneath the gaze of the Supreme Being.
Does this double aspect also not feature in the studies and variations that Piero Leddi offers us in relation to the symbol par excellence of the liberty tree? In the wake of the revolutionaries, he places it at the centre of his great compositions dedicated to the Supreme Being: he gives life to it for its own sake, associating it with the various symbolic objects of the period. In so doing he revives, perhaps unwittingly, one of the traditions which are at the origin of the liberty tree. Far from being the reassuring symbol of fraternal reconciliation, the site of a carefree joy, the first trees erected from 1790 onwards in the South-East of France – in Quercy, in Périgord, or in the Limousin – were maypoles set up in a spirit of revenge […]
In Piero Leddi’s nervous sketches I discern “may trees” of a similar kind, symbols of a conquest effected by an overwhelming force. The revolutionary epoch was compelled to choose between living trees and trees without roots, sometimes planting such illustrative emblems on a podium. [ … ]
Piero Leddi’s Revolution is a serious matter. In many respects it has a tragic dimension: in the solitude of the revolutionary hero, in the presence of violence at the very heart of what should be joy, in the path itself by which liberty pushes its way at the slow and lumbering pace of the great oxen, a blind symbol of the force of things. Yet the Revolution is not reduced to despair, still less to apocalypse. It is conquest, access to a higher order, it is light piercing shadow, an emanation of a Supreme Being who is perhaps simply the supreme expression of the human will.
(from Piero Leddi. Omaggio alla Rivoluzione francese, Electa, Milan, 1989)
Raffaele De Grada
In 1989 a number of events celebrated the bicentenary of the French Revolution, which had such an impact upon Lombardy, and especially in Milan, where a noteworthy cultural ferment had preceded it. But these events did not involve the figurative arts, save for a show on this theme by a painter who had made lengthy preparations for it, and who then exhibited the fruits of his labours. This painter, who during recent years has worked in a kind of isolation, wholly devoted to the concerns of art, is Piero Leddi. He first set foot in Milan when still a young man, having left an isolated village in the Tortonese, S. Sebstiano on the river Curone, known only because it borders on Volpedo, which gave birth to the great Giuseppe Pellizza.
It is in fact to the cult of Pellizza that I owe my friendship with Leddi. For he it was who accompanied me in the aftermath of the Second World War to visit the Piedmontese master’s studio, a veritable shrine tended by his last surviving relatives.
Piero Leddi felt at home there and breathed the same air as that great but ill-starred artist who, as is well known, met with a tragically early end. From Pellizza he learned the most important of lessons, that of cultivating an art committed to bearing witness to a particular time, with its own ideas, projects and hopes. De Micheli has recalled that the neo-classical painter Felice Giani lived in one of these same villages and it is perhaps from him that Leddi acquired his taste for grand compositions, which is so unusual these days. Be this as it may, Leddi has sought with great tenacity and the application of many qualities to facilitate the difficult encounter between the poetic nucleus inherent in his own personality and themes involving wide-ranging cultural commitment, as is borne out by the works exhibited here.
Leddi’s original peasant nature led him to consider things pragmatically, on a poetic terrain permitting the expression of his own innermost being, but at the same time he conjured up charming scenarios featuring the magical contemplation of moral heights and depths, the disturbing quarrels in the history of men. This is why his cows, birds, trees, and humanity itself assume the dreadful aspect of the monstrous figures evoked by Dante in the Inferno.
It was perhaps the echoes of a childhood lived, albeit at a distance, in the tragedy of war that nurtured Leddi’s visionary impulse. What is certain is that his rugged forms, which dissect by means of a sharp, haunted drawing the scenes suggested by his imagination – which is also exercised by faits divers that are close at hand (the epic of the racer from his own village, Coppi, and the birds slain by hunters from his own valley) – already in the 1970s prefigure the works on display here. These more recent works are dedicated to the most dramatic episode in modern history, the French Revolution, interpreted by Leddi as a victory, full of contradictions, of the new, modern, industrial civilization over the archaic, feudal, peasant civilization, even though the latter seemed to flow through his veins.
I do not believe that it is forcing our interpretation of these works by Leddi, inspired as they are by the events and protagonists of the French Revolution, to assert that there is manifested in them a contradiction between a nostalgia for an ancient civilization and the keen stimuli of the modern. An incisive, rigorous draughtsman, Leddi refuses to be swayed by the sort of enthusiasm expressed for the Fourth Estate in Pellizza’s Quarto Stato, where the procession of worker peasants is surrounded by an enchanted aureole presaging the future. Leddi’s images straddle the metaphor of wars and festivals with an urgent message regarding the historical event; both the horses of the apocalypse in Cardinal Ruffo’s army and the columns promising liberty that feature in the festivals of the Roman Republic, both the simulacra of the Goddess of Reason and the episodes from the Terror foster the sense of events that are at one and the same time just and to be endured, being neither wished for nor enjoyed. A spectre hovers over these images of Leddi’s, that of the great Goya, for whom the revolution gives rise to war and war looms with its bestial figures, summoned up from the infernal abysses. [ … ]
We note that Leddi’s imaginary is inspired by the noble examples of neo-classicism (the memory of Felice Giani is not beside the point here), but at the same time it is haunted by the expressionistic flash that like a bolt of lightning sweeps across the whole of his oeuvre. The eagles, the tridents and the new sceptres are in the hands of the new monsters of the just and the rational, ready to strike and destroy in order to renew.
There is therefore not even a trace of the rhetoric of the illustrative or of the narrative in Leddi’s work, even though it is dedicated to recounting the significant episodes of History. The Revolution and its consequences are seen contre-jour, and through the use of an articulated and dramatic language, marks express the implacable memory of time. [ … ]
Leddi’s images tend to suggest the drama of the tortured rather than the exaltation of the masses, in a deeply tragic vision of the revolutionary events, recounted more through the suffering of the victims than through a celebration of glorious deeds. Those same shrivelled “liberty trees” seem to be offered as withered bushes that reaction in its future rage will burn in the most dramatic fashion.
[…] We recall that David wanted to gather together all of the works (we would call them “installations”) produced spontaneously by the people during the brief years of the great Revolution. It is as if today Leddi wished them to be seen through the sufferings, even the glorious sufferings, of two centuries. [ … ] We may compare them in our minds with other examples from Leddi’s repertoire, his visionary images of railway stations, of city arches, of trams, of underground trains, of battered and festering cities.
Others artists from our own day have made us familiar with such visions (the wartime drawings of Moore or Sutherland, for example), the fruit of deeply human revelations of the cost to civilizations as they advance of emancipatory events.
We are concerned here with an important, participatory approach characteristic of the new realism of committed artists. Leddi is in the forefront of the now rare tendency to weigh up a civilization as it advances, its glorious and its ill-omened days. This is not Leopardi’s lament regarding the “magnifiche sorti e progressive”, but nor do we have to do with the rhetorical image of time inexorably building up and destroying. Instead we encounter in this instance a rational endorsement, in contemporary terms, of a great historical event that is more lived in the soul than recounted in practice, more gathered up within the innermost recesses of consciousness than celebrated in the public square. And the forms could not help but be Leddi’s own, evincing an expressionist realism harrowed and contorted in the chiaroscuro of Reason, which is no longer a goddess but remains a problem for today’s humanity.
(from Piero Leddi. Giacobinismo italiano 1789-1796, Sala della Resistenza, Comune di Verbania, 1996)
The 1980s and the 1990s
Texts by Giancarlo Majorino, Eleonora Bairati, Franco Loi, Mario De Micheli
The dream of reason dominates Leddi’s painting. And, as in his beloved eighteenth century, there is the idea of a nature that is essentially positive, although hidden, and still open to being idealised in all its myriad attributes. Here then are prospects, human figures, landscapes, tools, in an imaginary peace or an everyday war, in a fantastical state of exaltation and in an adherence to what is real. A spacious and unfamiliar workshop that knows, traverses but rejects the negations of contemporary painting. The vehicle that makes such a shift possible is supplied by narrative, figurations, the ideal, practical, allegorical, symbolic, caricatural representations. These throng and lead the various scenes, which are assigned in the first place to the lightning swiftness of a drawing that is inventive, flexible, highly varied in mood and vibrant. The notion that nature has been degraded, reduced, and focused on its new state as worked nature or ex-nature is very much in evidence, but the fruitfulness of that overriding idea causes the actual persons and their objects forming part of it to reconstitute it in all the great profundity of the term, reconciling us with it once again. Leddi therefore embarks upon and develops projects on the basis of various figurative themes, of which there are essentially four in number: the body, anatomical comparisons, ideality and distortion in the problem of the representation of the figure; the landscape, botanical reinvention, the conventions governing representation; objects, particularly objects that are used, interchangeable, modern and ancient, historical and contemporary; architecture, in the full range of what is realised, a symbol of the city. These four are freely interwoven or combined […].
But the pleasure to be derived from these skilfully dynamic representations guarantees that they do and do not have to do with history, that comparisons are and are not perceived, that the recognisable things are and are not. What nurtures the delight of the eyes and of thought, consoling and disturbing at one and the same time, is in other words the undeniable aesthetic autonomy of these at once considered and turbulent pictures. And our involvement is yet more radical in its impact through its being borne and sustained by the complexity of the conventions in operation – unusually so, indeed, in the tendentious universe of contemporary painting.
(from the Presentazione at the Galleria Seno, Milan, 1985)
Only by plumbing the existential depths of the Milan of those years [the sixties] can we hope fully to comprehend the recurrence of themes drawn from the peasant world. At their core we find the “things that are known”, things whose contemporary relevance, shorn of any nostalgic gratification, is due to their having passed through the filter of the urban dimension. The city of Milan is, in other words, the place in which the irreversible loss of the identity and ethos of the peasant world was consummated. Leddi never ceased to be aware of this fact, as the same theme was rehearsed in various different ways throughout the sixties and seventies: from the agricultural equipment – now useless pieces of machinery – of the sixties to the transposition into an allegorical idiom – the decline and “fall” of a whole world – of the authentically popular myth of Coppi (La caduta del campione, 1965); from the great epic treatment of the urbanisation of the peasant world (Il carro di Milano, 1973-74) to the emblematic Trittico del Giarolo (1974-75); from the repeated use of animal motifs, often monumental in scale (Grande vacca, 1973), to the disturbing evocation of the Seveso disaster (Festa sul Ticino, 1976-78).
During these years and along these lines Leddi’s language has attained complete autonomy, though always by following heterodox and punctiliously personal paths. Suffice it to recall the highly compressed phase of very intense research between 1967 and 1970 (after the important 1966 show at the Galleria Nuova Pesa in Rome), dedicated to just the single subject – mechanical-biological-symbolic, but historical also (and why should it not be, with ’68 under way?) – of heads struck and traumatised. This analysis would bear fruit in the years to come, as the study of the human body (the Leonardesque “machine”) once again became a central concern, and as Leddi’s confident recovery of an original process of figuration also brought with it the recovery of a sense of history. This was first and foremost a sense of the history of painting: Leddi is a cultivated painter and is not afraid to engage with key moments in the tradition, ready indeed to come face to face rather than simply to produce works after the great masters. He is interested in the Lombard tradition above all, as in the frequently repeated subject of Maternità or in the largescale paintings of the Miracolo della bambina (1973) and of the abovementioned Carro di Milano: a Ceranescan or a Borromean, but certainly not a Manzonian Lombardy.
And then again there is history tout court. Milan is at the heart of the glowing canvases dedicated to the Parco Sempione and to the Arco della Pace (1985, show at the Galleria Seno in Milan), in which neo-classical utopias are subtly evoked in an approach to figuration positing an unalienated reconciliation between past and present.
(from the Presentazione at the Università Luigi Bocconi, Milan, 1988)
Can we speak about life? Signs of it do exist, and often unbeknownst to ourselves. Courage is thus needed to write something about the life of another, even if it is a friend whose affairs are closely interwoven with our own. Should we speak about his art? Art speaks for itself and will not tolerate mediation. Yet it is perhaps a path we can more readily follow if we treat it as the expression of something that belongs to us, of marks and symbols that are also ours. When I look at Piero Leddi’s colours or drawing it always strikes me as an invitation to think. His colours are not sensual, like those of the Venetians for example, nor do they possess a strained, expressionist quality, like those of the early Lombards. His is a colour often accompanied by mark-making, by outlines, by charcoal, by the pencil. “The colours are hallucinatory, they do not encourage contemplation: blue, red, brown ochre predominate” and “the mark-making engraves furrows like wounds and the inside has therefore to do with life, and not simply with vision”, De Bartolomeis said in a monograph from 1970.
What tempts Piero Leddi is intelligence. I mean by this that if his mark-making stems from emotion, which is often indeed an impulse coursing through him when feeling or memory arises, his painting and his drawings do nonetheless consistently feature an attempt by the intellect to take charge of the operating both of marks and of images. This is an attempt, in other words, to capture movement and the means to express it in relation to consciousness, even through the fascination that contemporary pictorial or literary stylemes have for him. When, in his remarks, Leddi seeks to validate his approaches, infatuations – and the whole of twentieth-century painting features amongst them – and the formal recognition accorded by him to artists and individual works of art, he displays his propensity to structure and justify his own exercise of his craft, but, above all, his synchrony with the symbolic intuition of the times. But that is not all that is involved. He seeks, and in a deeper way, to gain an intellectual awareness from his marks. It is not a question of doubting his own capacities or of timidity, unless there is a hint of the timidity that belongs to us all, that don Lorenzo Milani defined as the “timidity of the poor”, and that surfaces sometimes in his writings and in his manner of putting himself forward. It is a question rather of a thirst for truth and a desire for intellectual mastery, almost a Goethean systematisation of the epoch in the work and of the work in time. Irony therefore often informs his way of working.
(from Piero Leddi. Dipinti e disegni, Charta, Milan, 1994)
Mario De Micheli
In speaking about Piero Leddi we would perhaps do best to begin with a work he painted between ’73 and ’74 and which is entitled the Carro di Milano. This is the “waggon”, hauled by a pair of oxen, that symbolises his family’s arrival in Milan […] from San Sebastiano Curone, a village in the Appenine Tortonese situated between Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria.
These places are still vivid in Leddi’s memory, places where both the neo-classical painter Felice Giani and Pellizza da Volpedo lived, artists who certainly made a deep impression on him. In his symbolic universe the Carro di Milano therefore indicates a painful separation from his own roots.
[…] His experience of the Lombard metropolis was therefore something entirely different from the years spent in San Sebastiano Curone; and yet, despite the new friendships, he remained a figure apart. Meanwhile in ’55, he entered the San Fedele with a picture that was by this time typically Milanese, Ponte della Ghisolfa. Carrà, who was on the jury, saw to it that Leddi was awarded the second prize. So it was that he now came to know the so-called “existential realists” from his own generation such as Bodini, Guerreschi, Romagnoni, Banchieri, and Vaglieri. At the same time, and fairly rapidly, certain critics warmed to him. In ’59 it was I who presented him to the Galleria Alberti in Brescia. He was then going through a period of uncertainty, though what chiefly concerned him was the peasant world. The open conflict between city and country would however become, shortly afterwards, a central preoccupation. I tried to explain this fact in a presentation I gave to the Galleria dell’Agrifoglio in ’72: “Leddi is certainly not a painter in search of a formula that is comfortable, exorcising and consoling. The poles of his dialectic are located in the contradiction between his own peasant origins and the violence of immigration in the hostile context of urban society. One could argue that every work of his bears the marks of this disagreement, of this reversible love-hate; of the impossibility a consciousness faces in subsisting within the archaic condition of the “soil”, and at the same time of the difficulty it encounters when inserting itself into the harsh, difficult, insidious “play” of the “city”. Attraction and repulsion pull him in two different directions, so that nostalgia and refusal, desire and mistrust, critique and praise cohabit within his moods and inclinations, constituting the terms of his poetics and above all the character, the physiognomy of his expressive practice.”
For a good number of years, this is the key, when all is said and done, to interpreting Leddi, both the “stories” that he recounts of families and love in cars, and the pictures devoted to Coppi, several times winner of the Giro d’Italia.
[…] By this date, around ’73 then, Leddi is firmly established in the Milanese context, and is already beginning to study motifs that appear to be profoundly linked to events in the city. He thus starts to show a particular interest in the problems of Milanese civil history, an interest destined to grow. The first explicit indication of this attention is the work on Giangiacomo Mora, accused of being a “plague bearer” and tortured in piazza Vetra, behind the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
[…] The process by which Leddi came to accept Milan as a model city advanced rapidly after ’73, especially starting with the works that run from ’76 to ’88. Look at the Ballo all’Arena, the Madre in piazza Diaz and the Cane che si gratta of ’82, in which the Arco della Pace is in view, as it also is in the Arco e teatro and in the Concerto al parco of the following year, not to mention in the Parco Sempione and in the Cena in drogheria of ’85. The fact is that Leddi lives in via Canonica and therefore has these monuments virtually in full view every time he leaves his house.
Now, however, we come to the years in which Leddi, patiently and obstinately, began to study the great theme of the French Revolution. This is the work that would later, in July 1989, on the occasion of the bicentenary of that event, lead to the show in the Sala Viscontea at the Castello Sforzesco. [ … ]
From 1990 to the present day, however, it is above all Milan that Leddi has painted: Milan as a city, as the backdrop to a restless, whirling society, in disordered expansion, its peripheries desolate and abandoned. Nor does Leddi himself evade such disquiet, anxiety and perturbation. That is in fact how he paints his urban landscapes featuring the centre of Milan, the Station, the underground. And every time, in these representations, his vision features an image of man as the presumed protagonist of his own fate. Leddi once said that he would be inclined to accept only the second part of Braque’s famous maxim. Braque claimed to love “the rule that corrects the emotion”, and, at the same time, “the emotion that corrects the rule”. “By contrast with Braque I would want to say – this is how he puts it – I love only the emotion that corrects the rule”. Emotion, indeed, is Leddi’s only law. Together with emotion, however, he does not neglect the technical resources that can assist his own symbolism through a synthesis capable of satisfying every need of his own formal identity. This is therefore how he negotiates the maze of problems occasioned by a language that is consistent with the sheer richness of his own inspiration.
In other words, Leddi develops his own images by seeking to invent an allegorical space that transcends descriptive discourse without however renouncing it.
(from Piero Leddi. Milano, Regione Lombardia-Società per le Belle Arti ed Esposizione Permanente, Milan, 1995)
The 1980s and the 1990s
The body is the protagonist in Piero Leddi’s painting, the crossroads at which many roads meet.
The human body in its nobility and constructive beauty, heroic in its actual standing up. Bones, tendons, muscles: a wondrous architecture, a model and a challenge to monuments. A call for truth that arises through the simple fact of nakedness: that offers itself with naturalness even where it is unexpected (as in the public spaces of Milan) but that at the same time reveals the choice of this painter to lay himself open, to take a risk, to be there: knowledge and sharing, although it may be, as we shall see, with a discreet and wary generosity.
The body and technology. A technology always concretely understood, starting with the equipment that, while it extends and strengthens the body and in part exempts it, enters into symbiosis with it, giving rise to a third entity: the Uomo aratro (1965), the carpenter framed by his own tools (Mio padre, 1973-75) and above all the splendid cycle on Coppi (a “peasant” from the same area as Leddi, the Tortonese, the home also of Pellizza da Volpedo and of Felice Giani, and no less dear to him). In this wide-ranging work, brought to maturity between 1965 and 1973, the symbiosis is explored in depth, displaying joints and ligaments, the sinew and skeleton of the bicycle, and conversely the mechanical nature of the body weighed down by disproportionate commitment and effort: will and matter, the organic and the inorganic combined in a common suffering introduced into the world by the Promethean choice. [ …. ]
The noble and Promethean body of Leddi is never forgetful, however, of the ties of consanguinity that bind it to the animal world. And the painter deals with that world in the manner that is congenial to him, pursuing it to its furthest reaches, from the genetic boundary to the most disquieting similarities and proximities, which are either difficult or a source of amusement. He thereby confirms the richness of his registers. [ … ]
Thus in subsuming the suffering of bodies, at one with the desires, dreams, passions and anxieties that traverse them, this painting becomes a document and an interpretation of an epochal shift. A society and its individual members are rejecting their ancestral roots, namely, the umbilical tie with Mother Earth and a close contiguity and harmony with living beings (see in this regard Madre-sole-radici of 1975 and the many earlier mother and child paintings). What Piero Leddi has so patiently put before our eyes is therefore an epiphany arising out of an enduring challenge: the existential and anthropological outcomes of the challenge that has pitted artifice against nature in a desperate bid to free ourselves or at any rate to shield from view the presence of death.
In a book published in Italy with a Leddian title (In autobus, edited by D. Daniele, Empirìa, Rome 1993) Grace Paley, a New York poet, has written: “I am afraid of nature / because of nature I am mortal”. There you have it, and Leddi accounts for this fear through the far-sighted gaze of one who was once a peasant.
Those who once were peasants have the tenacity and resignation of the beasts of the stable. There is revolt too: yet this is at the last overcome by a pietas that may even end in sacrifice.
Revolt and pietas, derision and a shy sweetness course through the veins of Leddi’s painting, which thus manages to represent us in our being as all after a fashion peasants and beasts resigned to a time that makes strangers of us. This serves to bind all of his work together. [ … ]
Here, I believe, we come to the germinative crux of Leddi’s painting: its oxymoronic nature, involving a conjugation of opposites, rcognisable above all in light and in the relationship between the abstract and the concrete (as well as in the juxtapositions and symbioses recalled earlier or anyway hinted at: organic/inorganic, nobility/wretchedness, civilization/barbarism, object/subject).
Let us pause for a moment to consider light. The two extremes between which it oscillates are, on the one hand, the light of the reciprocal breathing of things and beings, with colours that range from apricot to the red of foundry smoke and sunsets, and on the other hand, the cold light, phosphorescent and pitiless, that you might expect in an anatomical theatre or at an interrogation. The former is dimmed so as to define a place and a time to dwell in and to live together, whereas the latter is designed to investigate and to distance, ingenious, brief, thickened with a dash of shadow on pale bodies. [ … ]
If Leddi’s looking is also a remembering (which nonetheless concedes nothing to complacency and self-deception), it does at the same time in practice activate a critique of modernity: in its tracing of a boundary between object and subject, in its opposing abstract geometries to the reason of bodies.
Abstraction itself is therefore implicitly judged by this sort of painting. For abstraction has never been at liberty to remake the world from scratch but is, on the contrary, forced to measure itself against the weight, the edges, the perceptible qualities, the unrepeatable singularities of bodies, and in Leddi’s own terms, the aspects of the world that may be “commented upon”, and therefore shared.
Perspective itself, which is mother and daughter of object/subject separation, is not used by Leddi in a mechanical fashion. It does indeed open out on to the individual figure, care being taken to grasp the anxiety of relationship, to record its loneliness. This is the case with the various pictures of the Parco Sempione. For there the empty stage of the Teatro di Burri, evidently counterposed to a massing of bodies incapable of choral choreographies, simply serves to highlight this incapacity and tragic absence. Such a use of perspective is then linked to the frequent breaking down of inside and outside and the propensity to link reality and dream in which is projected the rebellion and civic indignation that pervades the work of this artist. Leddi demands freedom, first of all for himself, and against every schema, every formula.
While the maturity of this approach may well be the consequence of a whole life, a noteworthy shift can be identified, I believe, in the intensive exploration of the theme of “struck heads” unfolding from 1967 to 1970: “an almost daily ‘diary of heads’” [ … ].
This theme should nevertheless not mislead us. There is indeed a work specifically devoted to it – a head subjected to physical violence, the modes and effects of it, the biological responses, their representation and analysis, etc. etc. Yet there is also something else here, namely, the consolidation of the radical nature of this painting by virtue of its re-equipping itself within the horizons and the means available, and with its own resources. Up until then Leddi’s laboratory had owed more than a little to the bulldozing work carried out by Romagnoni, Guerreschi, Ceretti and Vaglieri and to the exchanges with Bodini. In saying this I do not mean to detract from his already unique line of research, or his original attempt to establish an interaction between reason and sentiment, history and existential enquiry, epic and lyric, tragedy and beauty. But the “heads” – which do in fact still await an organic systematisation and reconstruction – are in my opinion a new milestone as important as the initial one. For here we can see structured in a mature fashion that multiple (existential, anthropological and historical) gaze and that self-reflexive depth which I have tried to speak about here and which constitutes the highly personal style of this important artist of the latter half of the twentieth century.
(from Piero Leddi. Milano, Regione Lombardia-Società per le Belle Arti ed Esposizione Permanente, Milan, 1995)
Emigrants, sinopias and other images
Texts by Mauro Corradini, Aurora Scotti Tosini, Raffaele De Grada, Francesca Pensa
Plausible though it may be in terms of history and poetic concerns to number Leddi among the painters committed to verisimilitude, it is only with difficulty that he can be fitted into the groupings and iconographic poetics that enlivened the aftermath of the Second World War, from neo-realism, to existential realism, to the new figuration and subsequently to hyperrealism. For he has always kept his distance from these poetics, embracing a different sort of endeavour which perhaps finds its justification [ … ] in part in a desire for solitude, in part because his aims were different: Leddi seeks the individual meaning of history, the symbolic image realised through a dry and decisive mark-making, in order to achieve self-knowledge. [ … ]
In this rigorous but isolated stance, which has been ascribed to the culture of verisimilitude, the question of style also lies outside the usual contexts of neo-realism; Leddi cannot help but refuse the typical, as a founding value of the image, since the typical may engender repetition as an inevitable consequence: “Style – the painter asserted at the end of the sixties – is today exchanged for the repetition of given mnemonic elements in order to encourage optical laziness”. An optical laziness that for the artist overlaps with inert forms of thought. The price of his anomalous stance is thus an intellectual and expressive loneliness, which sets Leddi apart in the Lombard post-war context, to which however he has made a noble contribution. [ … ] Leddi sets out from drawing, which becomes subterranean and is clearly a guiding thread in an investigation into a historical period, with the implications I outlined at the start. Notwithstanding its extraordinary bravura, Leddi’s drawing is never descriptive; it is an excavation. The pencil is a scalpel, used not to find a cancer but the truth of the soul, at one and the same time a link between sentiment and reason, between the rational and the irrational, to use a dichotomy that is better suited to eliciting the expressive intentions of the artist. [ … ]
In Leddi’s graphic development, the experimental tension, the need to impart strength and voice to the pure mark, the need to transcribe in and through the sheet the gestural rhythms of the hand acting on paper, the stains, the burns, the creases, often become protagonists in the work. Consider the theme of the heads … Leddi’s head takes on the disturbing value of a reflection on man that is not formal. The head thus shrinks, forcefully arises from the mute traces of the background, and becomes an element that irrupts in the space of the page. It is as if it were lacerating the rationality of a composition sustained by the tightly woven background structures, which are often enmeshed gesturally in the two-dimensional and intentionally flat figure of the monochromes. [ … ]
Two other themes regularly occur, sometimes being accorded particular prominence at certain moments but invariably remaining a constant (and fundamental) feature of Leddi’s engraved work. I refer here to the theme of the fall (Fausto and Serse Coppi) and to that of the mother and child. [ … ]
Leddi inevitably brings back the fall to his own measure. On the one hand there is his own history, his memory, the sense he has of the fragility of those who live in his secluded valley of the Curone. On the other hand there is the history of the culture to which he belongs, a popular culture that is not “folklore”, the very culture that he has explored in a large number of noble pages on Milan and on the Great Revolution. Finally, there is the stylistic lesson of an inner coherence, which has no need of stylemes and repeated formulae […].
Somewhat similar concepts inform treatments of “mother and child”, perhaps the theme that ultimately features most often in his graphic work. The first appear at the beginning of the sixties, and in fact he constantly reflects upon motherhood. It is the theme through which Leddi directly explores human sentiments, the sense of belonging to one’s place of origin, and reclaims a visual culture that he has observed with an attentive and curious eye. And a cultivated one too.
It is perhaps the subject in which quotations and expressive implications emerge most forcefully: in the figure of a young mother and child the reader discovers a reference to Leonardesque drawing, for example, which is combined with a craving for roots. In this case it then brings up on the page, by dint of rigorous and classical mark-making, figures of memory and of the earth, like that of the calf.
This is the theme of sweetness and of sentiment. Here too light, the relationship of white with black, a feature characteristic of engraving, takes on an importance that subsequently becomes a category in the whole of the artist’s graphic corpus. For light translates presences into symbols, gives form to the formless, discovers the mark in its complexity as a way of undertaking meaningful research. Light enhances the continuous use of various features, at times stains and acid burns, suffused tactile effects that the artist discloses through aquatint. Ultimately it is light that exalts the crucial role played by an experimental mark-making that does not favour repetition but invention […].
The whole gamut of differences and nuances, from the ruggedness of a mark that outlines and defines, to the gentleness of a sfumato that seems to soften the figure (in particular) of the mother, the whole range of diverse marks that Leddi uses would seem to be exalted through the balances of light. It is classicizing that Leddi rejects, not measure. Because through light Leddi the engraver seems to impart a rhythm to his copper engravings by constantly resorting to the measure of balance, which validates the forms and gives them the opposed and perceptible sense of reason and of sentiment. .
(from Piero Leddi. Opera incisa 1956-2002, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Tortona, 2003)
Aurora Scotti Tosini
Born in San Sebastiano Curone and having in his turn “migrated to the city” in order to be educated and devote himself to painting, Piero Leddi – like another great son of the same village, Felice Giani, a revolutionary protagonist of Italian painting between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century – retains a vivid memory of those migrations that lasted for a good part of the twentieth century. Indeed, they have been reworked to telling effect in his paintings.
Through his formation Leddi became a painter who was thoughtful and true, not in the nineteenth-century sense, but in a critically existentialist guise whereby he gave substance to the Milanese artistic researches into figuration in the post-war period […].
It was often Leddi’s particular choice, however, to delve deep into history. He has sought to identify critical conjunctures enabling him to bring out the relationship between individual, subjective awareness and the choral conduct of a people seen as a protagonist in constant movement. He has thus focused on events or episodes in which history has brought about the abandonment of long-established forms of work and trades, of places (such as large mills) and of gestures serving as symbols of a particular identity, in order to impose new objectives and rhythms upon life and upon work. Furthermore, invariably there are autobiographical implications. We thus repeatedly encounter transfigurations of facts, places and episodes drawn from Leddi’s youthful experience of peasant existence in the Val Curone, a way of life that had rapidly lost competitiveness and therefore, as they say, meaning. [ … ]
And that is how Leddi responded to Giuseppe Pellizza [… ], producing a complex pictorial cycle on the migrations, which includes etchings, impassioned or disenchanted individual portraits but also a series of large canvases or works on paper, resembling actual frescoes, which are sometimes almost monochrome – at one and the same time monumental and profoundly touching in their sheer scale – and which develop the theme of migration in a sequence of secular paintings.
The starting-point is an evocation of the semi-darkness of the hills and mountains around Val Curone, and of the farewell feast held in honour of the emigrants at the headquarters of the Mutual Aid Society. They would then make their way to the Appenine chain that blocks the pass to Liguria and which, once crossed, brings Genoa into view, a bustling, teeming port, though also a highly complex and stratified settlement. The Piedmontese peasants, in Leddi’s transfiguration of them, come in sight of the sea, with their heads emerging above the mountains, yet the sea, the port and the city that appear before them are just as they are, joining the view from above with the one that unfolds before those who depart by sea and look back at the land and make their final farewells. A multiple and complex vision which, once again, seems to recast or, at any rate, to offer valid points of comparison with what was historically the most fascinating and symbolic representation of the greatness and wealth of the Republic of Genoa, depicted in the huge picture of the Madonna regina della città produced in Domenico Fiasella’s workshop around 1638 and commissioned by the Genovese who had emigrated to Sicily.
But alongside history, myth too informs Leddi’s approach, which is thereby laden with subtly symbolic nuances: those departures seem also to evoke a still more ancient fable, and a myth tied to the earth. The theft of labour power from the valley becomes a kind of rape of Europa, and the curve itself of the port, linking up with the taurine energy of the animal’s arched back, seems to go beyond its own limits, extending towards the new, towards places in an unknown America – and names that the emigrants could not even pronounce correctly, as is very evident from some of the titles chosen by Leddi for his own drawings after pondering the testimonies of Ligurian émigrés published by Antonio Gibelli – which were nonetheless destinations freighted with hopes for a brighter future.
(from the Presentazione at the Società Operaia, Volpedo, 2006)
Raffaele De Grada
Piero Leddi, an artist I have long respected, and about whom I have written upon several different occasions, always defining him as a history painter, has now, in the difficult times through which we are now living, brought a popular figure back to life. This work shows that we all have a little Bertoldo to pull out, much to our amusement. Ennobled in bronze, riding sidesaddle, as in Mattioli’s engravings, in which he appears before the King with a sieve on his head and hands him a cake. Bertoldo astride a donkey, in his preposterous hat, is a vision reminscent of a crib from the Upper Rhine, which to us brings with it the aura of a work by Marino Marini. [ … ]
What can you say about an important artist? Leddi with his studio on via Canonica, where he has worked his entire life, now produces a work that ties him to the territory where he was born, a festival that involves the inhabitants of many different villages. At a time when we deplore and decry fast food, Bertoldo reminds us of frugal peasant meals, consumed in a barn, in the evening, when we talked together and the breath of the cows warmed us. This work gives pause for thought: when it seems as if everything were asleep, Bertoldo teaches us so much. Life is also play.
There are numerous preparatory sketches, from forms backlit like Chinese shadows to visions that are more disntinctive, and characteristic of Leddi. This is his first sculpture, but it is as if there were others, countless others. This is how it is with artists of great talent. The donkey with the gentle air is in reality something of a problem, for he’ll only budge when he wants to and Bertoldo knows it, but he has all the time in the world. [ … ] Even Sancho [Panza] with his donkey reminds us of Bertoldo, for there are so many images in Europe of our friend. Indeed, in southern Italy there are countless representations in clay of a little donkey with a peasant on his back, always with a ridiculous hat on his head.
Leddi has frequently painted animals, such as the Vacca che si volta of 1959, charcoal and tempera, the Torello of 1980, or Uccello africano of 1992, tempera and graphite, which calls to mind Sutherland and Pellizza.
But there is also love for man, as with Coppi hunched over a bicycle, with his brother Serse looming up behind him, an affable two-headed Janus I saw at a recent show in Tortona. Now as if by magic Bertoldo turns up with his gangly little donkey from via Canonica, and rests in the square where the children play.
In 1964 I wrote a presentation for a one-man show at the Galleria della Sala di cultura of the Comune di Modena. Over these last forty years Leddi has not disappointed, and has always stayed true to himself. The history painter now nobly begins to work with sculpture, not far from San Sebastiano Curone.
(from Piero Leddi. Sculture. Omaggio a Bertoldo di Retorbido, for the inauguration of the monument, Retorbido, 2009)
Between the sixties and the seventies, Leddi started to address new themes. He began to be interested in the representation of the body, and the expressive modalities chosen with this end in mind reflected the master’s creative journey and his perception, transformed into image, of modern man, immersed in the time and space of the contemporary world.
Leddi wrote with reference to that period: “I am studying the anatomical plates of Vesalius, in order to interpret freely the human body.” [ … ] Leddi also dissected bodies, but man as he emerges from his research seems to belong to another species, born of the climate of modernity.
His anatomical [representations] show dismembered bodies, engraved from different and often superimposed points of view, described by means of a chiaroscuro that invents fantastical volumetries, lit by mental rather than optical lights. The poses are constrained by a constant movement, brought out by unbroken lines, serving to underline a dynamic tension, which in the frequent representation of the head demonstrates its interior rather than its physical nature.
This is the man of the contemporary world, no longer an absolute organism that contains in itself the perfection of a logical and rational cosmos, but rather a partial image of the accidentality of the single individual, and of the individuality of each and everyone, in a universe that has lost the certainty of a providential completeness and is instead perceived in its unstable relativity. [ … ]
Subsequently Leddi’s painting, which has not infrequently been in a dialectical and deeply committed relationship to the art of our past, has taken on yet more diverse thematic concerns, investigating in various works the form and idea of the city, with particular reference to Milan, and then producing the famous cycle inspired by the French Revolution, the sensitive expression of a new concept of civic painting, in which historical memory becomes an anti-rhetorical meditation upon the present.
The theme of the body also returns in more recent works, in which the harsh and rapid lines of the sixties and seventies give way to forms that are more recognisable but always filtered through an inner gaze, constantly directed at man as inhabitant of our contradictory contemporaneity.
(from the Presentazione at the Spazio-Laboratorio Hajech-Liceo Artistico Statale di Brera, Milan, 2009)